This article argues that World War II transformed the roles of Black recreation centers in the San Francisco Bay Area as the centers grew to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population. Using three community centers based in San Francisco and Oakland as case studies, I concentrate on the visions of the Black directors, the programs they built, and the ways that Black residents made these spaces their own. As thousands of Black migrants flocked to the West to find defense industry jobs, they found new opportunities but also familiar forms of discrimination they thought they had left behind in the Jim Crow South. Black community centers provided the physical space for new residents to congregate and socialize, and they served as an entryway into political organizing, education, and relief from daily forms of racism. Drawing from the centers’ archival material, including annual reports, program listings, meeting minutes, newspaper announcements, letters, and the personal papers of the directors, I reconstruct how these centers functioned in people’s lives and how they contributed to a long tradition of Black institution building in response to racial segregation in California.

Locked by tradition into restricted city areas, curtailed in his right to participate in industry and the professions, victimized in a racketeering housing situation, the migrant Negro and his children, have in some few instances succeeded admirably, but in all too many other instances they have failed.

Robert Flippin, 1943

On August 26, 1943, Robert Browning Flippin, director of San Francisco’s Booker T. Washington Community Center (BTWCC), delivered a speech titled “The Negro in San Francisco.” Flippin talked about the massive demographic change prompted by the war and the challenges facing new Black migrants from the South. He referred to the newcomers as “modern refugees” escaping the “static warm organic” simple life of Southern folk culture and the terrors of plantation life to join the production lines in the chaotic and impersonal city.1 He called on his audience to help these families adjust to the city and navigate the nuances of urban life. Flippin also called on the city itself to be an example of true democracy, to reject racial discrimination and guarantee a system of fair play in employment, housing, and social opportunities.2

While new arrivals confronted discrimination in countless social situations, the main problem was housing. Confined to specific areas through restrictive covenants, redlining, and de facto segregation, African Americans were forced into overcrowded, dilapidated apartment buildings. With up to six or eight people living in a room, or multiple families sharing a single-family dwelling, Flippin argued that the formation of Black ghettos contributed to juvenile delinquency, family disorganization, crime, high death rates, and the prevalence of disease.3 In such conditions, Flippin argued, it was amazing that Black Americans succeeded at all, but that with fair conditions their community could truly thrive. Community centers like the BTWCC attempted to fill the gap for Black residents as they confronted the challenges of a changing city.

This article argues that the impact of World War II expanded the functions, size, and political activism within Black community centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to the war, during the Great Depression, these centers focused on helping people meet basic needs: employment services, residential placement, and free meals. Educational and recreational classes were also offered, but with more options that emphasized a marketable skill, such as dressmaking and sewing classes for women. Once the United States entered the war in 1941, a second wave of Black migration began in earnest. Unlike World War I, when the majority of migrants traveled to Northern cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, this new wave saw greater numbers move west to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area. In response to the developing Pacific threat, and with plenty of space and land for wartime industry, defense contracts streamed into these western cities.

Shipbuilding dominated the Bay Area, with shipyards constructed in San Francisco, Richmond, Oakland, Vallejo, and Sausalito.4 The migration of Black Americans into the region in search of wartime jobs dramatically increased city populations and altered the dynamics of race relations. The massive numbers also meant housing shortages. For families with children, and for young adults, finding a safe and comfortable space for socializing, exercise, and entertainment was an important component of building community among new and old residents. Community-based recreation centers helped meet that demand. However, with greater economic opportunity for African Americans came greater expectations of the types of leisure and recreational activities that were available.5 In addition to employment and housing services, the rec centers expanded their programs to include classes in music, ballet, drama, politics, and Black history, alongside the usual offerings of athletics and social gatherings. They also provided the opportunity for political organizing and activism.

The term recreation is broad and can include a wide variety of activities. It includes sedentary activities like board games, reading groups, and movie nights alongside active options such as sports leagues, overnight camping trips, and theatrical productions. The main distinction is that recreation is not work. It is an activity done for the sake and purpose of pleasure, rest, socializing, and/or entertainment. Recreation can have educational elements, but taking classes at rec centers to learn new skills is a choice rather than an obligation.

The meaning of recreation for participants and the directors who ran the centers was varied and changed over time. For the Black elite at the turn of the nineteenth century, recreation was often a means of displaying gentility and heteronormative gender roles. Historian Nina Mjagkij’s work on the founding of Black YMCAs in the 1870s examines the connection of recreation to religion, citizenship, and masculinity.6 Similarly, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s social history of Black clubwomen shows how community social work contributed to a form of respectability politics.7 In the Progressive Era, both Black and white reformers viewed recreation as a way to curb juvenile delinquency. These were all ideas that guided many of the Black directors in the Bay Area in the twentieth century. But while these centers may have been founded on some of those principles, they were forced to adapt to the needs of the people they served in a time of disruption and war. The physical space of the community center became inherently multifunctional. It was a place for recreation, socializing, distributing vital information, and political organizing. Unlike many community centers today, these spaces were not exclusive to young children. They were designed and programmed to serve whole families and young, single adults.

Using the Booker T. Washington Community Center in San Francisco and the de Fremery Recreation Center and the Black Y in Oakland as case studies, I analyze their transition to absorb thousands of new Black migrants and the programming that encouraged racial uplift. Additionally, I argue that the directors themselves were guided by their own middle-class backgrounds and experiences with recreation prior to their arrival to California. While they each led with a distinct vision and their own personal interests, their missions centered on advancing racial equality. For some participants, these spaces were just a safe place to socialize, but the act of taking up physical space in a changing city challenged the status quo of racial inequality. Together, the centers demonstrate the ways that Black institutions in the Bay Area contested space that was often denied to them and responded to the needs of an expanding Black demographic in a time of war.

The state of California, and the Bay Area specifically, experienced massive growth and spatial reordering in response to the war and the Great Migration. San Francisco and Oakland absorbed the greatest numbers of newcomers in the North Bay, but t Marin City, Vallejo, and San Jose also became desirable locations for Black migrants seeking employment and new communities. Establishing networks through Black institutions such as churches, Black-owned businesses, and Black recreation centers helped people settle into their new cities. The three centers highlighted in this article were part of a larger tapestry of community building. For the folks who routinely sought out their services, they provided space for friendship, education, exercise, and intellectual stimulation. Significantly, they also provided roadmaps for navigating local bureaucracy and access to resources people may not have found elsewhere.

The restrictive conditions African Americans faced in San Francisco and Oakland grew worse in the 1940s as demand for housing outstripped supply. In cities across the North and West, Black migrants looking for wartime employment met similar circumstances. Scholars have shown that inclusiveness of the new modern city culture extended primarily to European immigrants in the early decades of the twentieth century. Their adoption of a white racial formation was predicated on the exclusion of African Americans and other people of color such as Mexican Americans and Asian immigrants.8 As a result, the features of the new mass culture that permeated the urban spaces in the form of movies, amusement parks, department stores, museums, etc., were largely closed off to Black patrons, or allowed for only segregated participation.9 At the end of the war, cities underwent another new spatial arrangement, as federally subsidized suburbanization encouraged millions of white workers and families to flee the “urban blight” developing around them. Eric Avila argues that postwar suburban development solidified a new “white” identity that absorbed any remaining European ethnic groups still feeling outside the bounds of Americanness.10

For Black city residents, old and new, accessing forms of entertainment and leisure was an essential part of living in urban space. For directors like Robert Flippin, the war provided community centers an opportunity to grow their programs and build on their mission of community building. All over the Bay Area, organized recreation was recognized as a powerful means to strengthen the individual and the community. By the time World War II began, Black recreation centers had a strong institutional history that allowed new directors to meet the needs of a growing Black population. Many of these directors came west following the same migration patterns as the working-class residents they would reach.

Organized recreation was not a twentieth-century invention. The YMCA, founded in 1844 in London, arrived in the United States by 1852. Exclusion by the organization did not deter the Black middle class from seeing the benefits of such institutions. Anthony Bowen, a former enslaved person from Maryland, opened the first YMCA for African Americans in Washington, DC, in 1853.11 The first Black YMCAs functioned as little more than Bible study, but toward the end of Reconstruction, urban middle-class and elite Black men started investing in the expansion of Black YMCAs nationwide.12 Nina Mjagkij argues that in reaction to the adoption of Jim Crow in the South, Black men used the YMCA as a venue to affirm and assert their masculinity.13 These early leaders believed that if they displayed all the virtues of traditional Victorian gentility, they could command the respect of their white peers and advocate for equal rights.14 This was part of the politics of respectability, focusing on modifying behavior to have their humanity recognized and gain full citizenship. For Black men, asserting a paternalistic heteronormative masculinity was also a rebuke of infantilizing stereotypes in the antebellum period, and rejection of the image of the dangerous, sexually threatening brute in the post–Civil War era. Institutions like the YMCA/YWCA allowed Black men and women to perform the virtues of religious piety and chastity, and to adhere to gender roles/expectations. Historian Kevin Gaines provides a significant critique of this strategy, arguing that respectability politics worked within the constraints of white supremacy and reinforced class and gender hierarchies.15 Black community centers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth carried these ideas with them. Black clubwomen found leadership roles in these spaces, but taught and ascribed to ideas of chastity, child-rearing, and fulfilling the expectations of wife and mother.

Into the twentieth century, however, the purpose of these organizations began to shift. In the 1920s and especially during the Great Depression, Black Y’s, and other community centers like the BWCC, acted as community safety nets, helping people get back on their feet during the economic crisis. It also became clear by the end of World War I that exhibiting Victorian gentility or national patriotism did not translate to full citizenship. Despite fighting in the war, attending Black universities, and expanding the Black middle class in many cities, African Americans still lacked equality in every sector of political and social life. Writing in 1919 in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, W. E. B. DuBois lamented the treatment Black servicemen received back home after risking their lives in war. He called out the hypocrisy, writing: “[W]e fought gladly and to the last drop of blood.…We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.”16

Despite the absence of formal segregation laws, Black residents faced de facto segregation in cities around the Bay Area, finding themselves excluded from using public pools, parks, roller rinks, restaurants, and other public and private amusements.17 In a 1944 study of the experiences of African Americans living in San Francisco, researchers called twenty-five businesses of recreation, including bowling alleys, swimming pools, and skating rinks. Asked directly if they served Black patrons, eleven stated they did not allow African Americans to participate. In two other cases, patronage was limited to Black servicemen.18 People of color, however, still found outlets for recreation and leisure. Frequenting jazz clubs, dance halls, and bars; joining sports teams; and signing up for recreational activities at local community centers all contributed to their social experience. Some of these establishments were Black-owned, others catered to a working-class clientele where segregation was less enforced. Victoria Wilcott examined the pattern of de facto segregation across Northern cities in leisure spaces, and how Black Americans resisted exclusion. She argues that their resistance started long before the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s and was characterized by daily incidents of violence.19

For families with children, and for young adults, finding a safe and comfortable space for socializing, exercise, and entertainment was an important component of building relationships among new and old residents. Recreation centers helped meet that demand by expanding their offerings Never working within a vacuum, these Bay Area community centers worked in conjunction with each other, as well as with schools and churches. It was not uncommon for multiple groups to fundraise for a common cause, hold meetings in each other’s social halls, or attract new participants from church members.20

Since the 1920s, the development of recreational activities in of itself had become a political statement—that even as working-class laborers, members of Black communities deserved the same opportunities to partake in recreation and leisure. And while Black reformers had been organizing community centers from as early as the nineteenth century, competing notions of bourgeois and working-class respectability often limited widespread participation in the past. The Great Depression erased a lot of these class boundaries as the economic crisis forced a reconfiguration of priorities. That is not to say that class distinctions did not exist during World War II. Black clubwomen and the directors of these community centers often came from middle-class backgrounds, and were college educated. Their goals stemmed, in part, from their own middle-class experiences. Yet in general there was more fluid participation that crossed class lines during and after the war. This is evident in the 1939 UC Berkeley study of the BTWCC, which included a section on the economic status of Black residents and the members of the center.21 Results showed that these centers acted as a main source for socializing, recreation, and political activism.

By 1943, when Robert Browning Flippin delivered his speech on the conditions of African Americans in San Francisco, he was more than just the director of the Booker T. Washington Community Center. He was the treasurer of the local NAACP, a Boy Scout troop leader, a member of the Community Chest Speakers Bureau and the Port of Oakland Youth Service Group, and on the advisory board of trustees for the Mental Hygiene Society.22 He gave this speech and others like it to college students, fraternal clubs, women’s groups, and at other community centers. He also spoke before the California legislature to discuss what government actions could help unemployment and “youth problems.”23 Concerns about Black juvenile delinquency had been largely absent from community center records in the 1920s and ’30s, and there were few cases against Black teens in court. In his study of San Francisco, Albert Broussard argued that before the Great Depression, Black juvenile court cases usually concerned minor offenses. In court records, Broussard found that between 1928 and 1929, the same year BTWCC published an annual report, only three of 463 cases in juvenile court involved Black teens. Expanding his investigation of sources, Broussard wrote that “newspapers, public records, and personal interviews reveal that black children in San Francisco were orderly and well behaved and that the majority of their social and recreational activities were structured and organized through schools, churches, and community centers.”24 As the population grew, however, the rate of crime climbed as well. While the conditions and obstacles of African Americans in San Francisco were Flippin’s top priority, he also spoke about the need to work with other minority groups, the state of racial prejudice in the United States in general, and how to improve the position of Black Americans after the war. Like community center directors Joshua Rose and Dorothy Pitts in Oakland, Flippin had a long history of experience in recreation and social work before arriving in San Francisco. That experience guided his vision for recreation in the Bay Area and influenced the programs he developed.

Born in Stromsburg, Nebraska, in December 1905, Flippin was the son of a Black physician and grew up in a middle-class social world. His interest in recreation started in high school when he served as secretary at the only community recreation center available to African Americans in town.25 While attending the University of Nebraska, he worked as the secretary of the Black YMCA near campus, and later volunteered at the St. Paul Community House as he pursed a medical technician degree from the Northwest Institute of Medical Technology in Minneapolis in 1935. After graduating, Flippin became an X-ray technician and secured a job at a state hospital in Chicago, where, in his words, he observed “the plight of many Negroes needing treatment.”26 Working in the medical field and being the son of a physician, Flippin witnessed firsthand the types of services that people in a working-class neighborhood needed. Flippin also spent one summer studying under renowned African American sociologist Dr. Horace R. Cayton Jr., who coauthored Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City in 1945.27

All of these experiences shaped Flippin’s worldview and influenced the programs he developed in San Francisco. In his job application for BTWCC in 1937, Flippen responded to the statement, “Indicate the particular phases of the work in which you are especially interested and believe you are best qualified:” “Development of adolescent youth, stimulation and development of Adult activities, develop the functional forces of the Center so that it becomes a greater social factor in our community” (emphasis added).28 He imagined his role as a facilitator, but also an agent for social change. He highlighted housing as the main obstacle facing new Black migrants, but this was inevitably tied to recreation. Where people lived affected their access to public recreation like parks, playgrounds, and greenspace. Flippin advocated for federal housing projects to meet the demand, including the West Side Court homes built in 1943 in the Western Addition district of San Francisco.29 When the housing development opened, Flippin was appointed by the San Francisco Housing Authority to manage its first year.30 While not officially designated as a Black-only housing project, the Western Addition and Fillmore neighborhoods had a majority of Black residents and constituted the area’s greatest need. The West Side Courts, however, had only 136 units, which hardly made a dent in alleviating the crisis. As more war industry workers moved into the Bay Area, Flippin argued that the lack of housing posed health risks. Speaking to the Chronicle in 1943, Flippin highlighted the conditions of substandard dwellings: “There are some families living in quarters without gas or water in San Francisco. One building housing 14 families hasn’t had water for months.”31 With multiple people sharing rooms, and families sharing houses, there was little to no privacy or space for entertainment and relaxation. Community centers became the living rooms, parlor spaces, and backyards that people did not have as part of their home space.

Few personal, firsthand accounts from the people who used the centers are available. But in 1939, Flippin allowed UC Berkeley economics professor Emily Huntington and her graduate students to conduct a study of the Booker T. Washington Community Center to analyze its relationship to the neighborhood, the members (their economic status and social resources), and the purposes and objectives of the center, which changed slightly after 1938 when the BWCC adopted a new constitution.32 In the original constitution, the statement of objectives was short, vague, and contained a religious component. It also reflected the broader racial uplift ideology of the late nineteenth century. It stated: “The object of this organization shall be to promote Social, Physical, Scriptural, and Industrial development of the people in San Francisco.”

In the 1938 revision, the statement of objectives expanded: “It shall be the purpose of this organization to promote a wholesome community-wide recreational, educational, and character-building program for the adult and juvenile citizens of San Francisco and the establishment and maintenance of an adequate Center in which to house such and other approved activities.” The change resulted from a collaborative effort by the BWCC board, staff, and registered members that reflected a general shift in how they envisioned the purpose of the center. According to the Berkeley researchers, the change allowed for the “adoption of different techniques” in meeting the social problems and social needs of the Black community. They commented: “While the professional group worker expects his techniques to produce certain results in the way of character development, to the lay members of this Board ‘character building’ is a much more definite thing.” The revised objectives also specified the desire to reach both adults and young adults in their programs. An economic analysis is, of course, limited in its scope, but it nonetheless reveals significant information about the center and its relationship to the community.33

The first interesting observation in the report is that the researchers did not qualify the BWCC as a “neighborhood” center because its aim was “to serve a minority racial community whose constituents are widely scattered.”34 As in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area, African Americans had fewer resources at their disposal. The community centers open to Black residents had to serve a larger public than their white counterparts. This made publicizing very important, but also meant that they had to stretch their resources to meet a growing demand. In 1939 the BWCC operated out of a small building at 1433 Divisadero Street, which the organization purchased in 1923 and renovated. While catering to the Black residents in the area, the neighborhood also consisted of Japanese and Russian families, and a small number of Filipinos. These ethnic groups lived among each other but were divided in many social settings. The Japanese, for instance, ran their own YMCAs because of exclusion from white chapters.35

African Americans occupied less than 6.4 percent of the dwellings in San Francisco in 1939, yet 21.9 percent of members of the center received some form of public aid, other than health services. Researchers found that Black residents in this area paid three to seven more dollars per month in rent than white residents, and that about 40 percent of their dwellings were rated substandard. Before the explosion of wartime industrial work, about half the men worked in domestic or personal service, with less than one-third in manufacturing industries, trade, and transportation. Nearly two-thirds of African American women worked in domestic or personal service, and about one-fourth in manufacturing and mechanical industries. Working in low-wage labor and being forced to pay higher rents meant there was little disposable income for entertainment and leisure activities. For young adults, and families with children, community centers offered a low-cost option for recreation and entertainment. For “junior membership,” parents could sign up their children ages 10 to 14 for fifty cents per year or five cents per month. Intermediate membership, ages 14 to 21, cost one dollar per year or 10 cents per month, and members over 21 paid two dollars per year. People unable to afford these costs earned their membership privileges by doing volunteer work at the center. Membership fees contributed less than 2 percent of the center’s income, with about 20 percent coming from rental of facility space to third-party groups and a little over 75 percent coming from the Community Chest.36

In addition to serving a community well beyond their district borders, the BWCC and similar institutions had to deal with white opposition. White residents often resisted Black community centers’ efforts to secure facility locations. White residents couched their discrimination through rhetoric of “Black crime,” but also wanted to refuse services that would reduce crime. Before moving to their location on Divisadero, BWCC administrators battled the white Divisadero Improvement Association, which resisted their purchase of a building in the neighborhood.37 To quell their fears, Flippin “visited nearly thirty white clubs and groups, in order to obtain a clearer understanding of their attitudes toward the Center, and insofar as possible, to develop an appreciation of the Center’s aims.”38 In November 1942, the BWCC moved again, from their Divisadero site to 2031 Bush Street, a building formerly used by Japanese residents. Japanese internment made that specific space and surrounding residential dwellings available to the expanding Black population.39

The BWCC generated public support by establishing public-private relationships between other like-minded organizations and agencies. They worked with the local Black Y’s, the public schools, the juvenile court, San Quentin and Folsom prisons, the Family Service Agency, Travelers Aid, and, through the Visiting Nurse Association, a variety of clinics. They worked closely with the Tuberculosis Association and held frequent TB testing in the center itself.40 Inter-organizational relationships helped in the recruiting process but also in maintaining an image that was hard for white antagonists to criticize. Community center administrators also recruited by distributing monthly bulletins to members, making announcements in churches and schools, going door to door, and speaking on radio programs.41

As the BTWCC expanded its physical space to better meet the needs of new city residents, it also shifted the types of services offered to its members. One of the most significant functions was just to distribute information. This could be as simple as providing a list of hotels that served Black guests, as Flippin did for a Miss Charlie Mae Boozer who was visiting from Ohio. The list had five such hotels, with a note at the bottom indicating that the Fairmont Hotel was a “first class white hotel, which will accept the better class of Negroes.”42

More significantly, community centers such as the BWCC helped Black residents navigate the often-complicated map of bureaucratic resources. The relationships between public and private services were essential for this purpose. An internal report outlining the BWCC’s role in counseling clients detailed how to help residents find the necessary resources, and it stressed the importance of working cooperatively with public agencies that handled pensions, medical care, housing, economic relief, child care, recreation, education, rights for veterans, and employment. This information was especially important when working with new Southern migrants who were “accustomed to the official indifference of southern bureaucracy.”43

Counselors were tasked with identifying a client’s problem, deciding which agency or agencies should handle the case and providing the necessary information to act, including location, telephone numbers, and explaining to their client the type of service to expect from the agency. Counselors helped residents fill out forms, provided letters of introduction if needed, and conducted follow-up appointments to make sure a client obtained the recommended services.44 With the passage of the GI Bill after the war, the BWCC expected some of the greatest demand to be from veterans trying to access the rights and privileges granted within that legislation. The report instructed counselors to prepare, as it would be “vital to be able to refer [veterans] to the proper agency or bureau.”45

Employment was in high demand, especially once the war ended. The BWCC prepared itself by working with the United States Employment Service (USES) and updated weekly or monthly information on available jobs.46 In this capacity, community centers believed it was important not only to help residents gain access to resources but also to hold public agencies accountable. The BWCC’s internal report stressed this role, stating:

The counseling department should be tactfully persistent in seeing that other agencies assume their responsibilities, that they really act rather than merely confer. We can be a stimulating force toward that end. We can be a coordinating force when a case requires the attention of more than one agency, as School and Health Departments, School and Juvenile Court, Family Service and Health Department, and so on.47

Never forgetting its other fundamental functions, the report ended by encouraging counselors to direct clients to available leisure-time activities at the center and to be active agents in “steering individuals into wholesome activities, companionships, and attitudes.”48

In addition to directing residents to the appropriate public agencies, the BWCC also tried to provide basic services within the center itself, including health services. The center regularly scheduled free tuberculosis testing and fluoroscopic examinations through the San Francisco Tuberculosis Association. They offered multiple time slots and screened movies during the wait times to encourage greater participation.49 In the 1940s, the BWCC created a health and recreation department within their institution to help meet the community’s health care needs. This division was headed by Muriel Anderson, who used radio, among other media, to broadcast information about health risks and available resources.50 A BWCC newsletter credited Anderson with “stimulating great public interest in the health problems” of the Black community and expanding the services of the health program to meet greater public need.51 She formed the Red Cross Home Nursing class at the BWCC, which taught students Red Cross first aid lessons and techniques, and she created a “National Negro Health Week” that “informed the community of the many health resources available.”52

The center also directed efforts to pull people out of precarious living situations. In July 1942, this meant going to juvenile court and securing the release of a girl found to be working in a brothel.53 BWCC counselors placed the girl in a home and planned to enroll her in school in the fall. In the same month, counselors helped a single mother get back on public relief after her husband deserted her. They accompanied the woman to the district attorney’s office and domestic relations department to file a warrant against her spouse. In the meantime, the center provided her and her family with food. Both are examples of how community centers filled the void left by inadequate public services or agencies not willing to work with people of color. In the research conducted by the Berkeley economists, they noted that Black San Franciscans expected and demanded this type of personal interaction, “the right to be recognized as individuals—which public departments could not,” either because of philosophy, organization, or institutional racism.54

Lastly, the BWCC offered a variety of recreational, educational, and leisure activities that met the needs and interests of their members. For sports, the center offered young men boxing, tumbling, wrestling, team baseball and basketball, and swimming.55 In the area of crafts, men signed up for wood carving and paper- and leathercraft. Social clubs included glee clubs, tap and social dancing, dramatics, piano lessons, Boy Scout troops, and Cub Scout troops.

For young girls the sports activities were more limited (at least at the BWCC), but they managed to have basketball, volleyball, and swimming.56 In crafts, women did paper- and leathercraft, wood burning, sewing, and knitting. Women and young girls had access to the same social clubs as men and all members had access to communal games, such as checkers, Ping-Pong, dominoes, and cards. The center also sponsored many discussion groups on political issues, a college club, and monthly NAACP meetings. There were age-appropriate games for small children, and specific forum clubs for men and women over age 21.57 It is easy to list these activities as just a catalog of traditional games, but they offered important opportunities for social interaction and the resources to fulfill intellectual and creative needs.

The community center simultaneously provided a respite from the stress of work, home life, and school and acted as a site for political engagement. Essentially, it became a space for members to make their own. At least at the BWCC, program directors and staffers listened to the demands of members, eliminating programs with low attendance and creating new ones to meet expressed interests.58 For instance, in early 1944, responding to requests from young mothers and expectant mothers, Flippin introduced the Mothers Club, which brought in volunteer nurses to discuss prenatal care and information on child development.59 A month after this meeting for mothers, the BWCC advertised a mass meeting for ship workers to be held at the center to discuss segregated unions. The bulletin announced in big, black, bold lettering: “NEGRO SHIPYARD WORKERS! WILL JIM CROW UNION AUXILIARIES SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS? WILL AUXILIARIES HELP WIN THIS WAR?”60 The meeting was organized by the San Francisco Committee against Negro Discrimination and Segregation, hosted by the BWCC and open to the public free of charge. A statement at the bottom of the bulletin encouraged wide participation: “Following the reports, open discussion is not only allowed, but invited.”

Community centers became the starting point for all of these types of political, social, and recreational interactions. To be successful, centers had to have strong leadership, but more importantly, they had to be receptive to their members. The BWCC held a significant position in San Francisco, and throughout the Bay Area, similar institutions worked to meet the needs of the swelling numbers of incoming Black migrants. In many instances these centers worked together in hosting events, fundraising, and offering services when public agencies fell short. Other strong community center directors like Joshua Rose and Dorothy Pitts shared Robert Flippin’s vision of racial uplift and community building, but their programs were influenced by their own life experiences, and as such, their institutions stressed different kinds of public engagement.

Just as the BWCC looked for new leadership toward the end of the Great Depression, the Black YMCA in Oakland (the Black Y) sought stability and change through a dynamic leader. In 1939 the organization hired Joshua Rose from Pittsburgh. In 1946, under Rose’s leadership, a new building opened on 3265 Market Street, where it still functions today.

Rose brought renewed energy to the Black Y, and a perspective about community recreation that grew from his own experiences in Pittsburgh and in New Jersey. As a youth and young adult, Rose joined fraternal associations and social clubs that sought to break down racial barriers. A member of both the Ritz Klub and the Holy Cross Amateur Athletic Club of Pittsburgh, Rose believed recreation built better character and united communities. The preamble of the Ritz Klub stated:

We…do bind ourselves together to strive for better entertainment among our group, to break down social and racial barriers in all forms, to fight segregation in public buildings, to place a greater number of colored employees in city and county offices, to make Pittsburgh colored society a society of the people, by the people and for the people.61

In the spring of 1927, the Ritz Klub merged with the Holy Cross Club and the Phantoms of Pittsburgh (another athletic social club) to form the Greater Pittsburgh Inner-Club Council. The goals of these associations and clubs ranged from establishing and maintaining friendships to initiating dialogues about contemporary political issues, promoting health and well-being, and creating a proactive community. From there, Rose became a volunteer and part-time employee of the Black YMCA in Pittsburgh from 1923 to 1929, working as a clerk, desk man, custodian, dormitory and cafeteria manager, physical director, swimming instructor, and group leader.62

While a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Rose organized the first YMCA camp for underprivileged boys, helped develop testing programs to identify gifted students, and fought to enroll the first Black swimmers on the university’s swim team. After graduating, Rose took a position with the YMCA in Montclair, New Jersey, where he organized the first interracial learn-to-swim-campaign.63 His impressive résumé prompted Oakland to offer him a position and, with his arrival in 1939, he actively put his experience to use.

One area he was especially passionate about was nature. Both in Pittsburgh and then in Oakland, Rose instituted outdoor summer camping trips that took inner-city youth to state and regional parks. For many participants, this was a completely new experience. In the fall of 1930, still working as the Y’s Boys’ Work Secretary in Pittsburgh, he organized Camp Indian Head for the spring of 1931. It was recognized as the “first bona fide camp to be sponsored by the Central Avenue Branch” and quickly became a hit among members.64 Located at the base of Laurel Ridge Mountain about sixty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Camp Indian Head tried to reach the individual on multiple levels: physical, social, educational, and devotional.65 Rose believed that being away from the city allowed boys the space and freedom to express their “spiritual and emotional sides.”66 One can imagine that for the boys and young men who participated, going out into nature provided a reprieve from the congested and concrete atmosphere of the city. At camp, they hiked, swam, and engaged in activities that promoted teamwork and leadership skills. Older teenagers volunteered as camp counselors and acted as big brothers to the younger boys, allowing the teens to take on more responsibilities and helping campers of varying ages establish relationships.67 The local paper reported:

Campfires, with their story-telling and singing, seemed to draw out the boys like nothing else could. It was then that frank discussions of common problems led to a clearer understanding, and formed a firmer bond among the campers. Another experience that will remain vivid to the boys was an overnight hike, when they slept under the stars in the open.68

Offered at the low cost of $6.50 for ten days, which included transportation and meals, many families took the opportunity to give their sons this invaluable experience. In 1932, 125 boys signed up for the first of two sessions, demonstrating its early popularity.

Rose’s success in Pittsburgh influenced the type of program and atmosphere he tried to institute at the Oakland Black Y. He organized both local summer day camps and annual trips to Yosemite, hoping to broaden the experiences of Oakland’s Black youth. At the day camps, participants engaged in arts and crafts, sports, and day trips to local parks like Nichol Park in Richmond and Alum Rock Park in San Jose. The end of summer culminated in an organized trip to Yosemite, where members immersed themselves in one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.69

For Rose, outdoor recreation was a significant activity that pushed participants out of their comfort zone, contributed to better health, and offered new experiences. Outdoor excursions had long been associated with the YMCA and other boys’ programs like the Boy Scouts. Camping trips and outdoor activities were often used to reinforce notions of masculinity and manhood.70 However, for Rose and those who joined (in Pittsburgh and Oakland), outdoor recreation satisfied more than just the need to distance themselves from the chaos and challenges of the city. For Black Americans, city life often meant confronting discrimination on a daily basis at school, work, or in any public space.71 Recreational centers themselves provided a barrier against racial prejudice, but weeklong camping trips removed members completely from the constraints of the city. It gave them a greater sense of freedom to be out in nature and among neighbors and friends without the stress of racial tension. Organized trips into the national park taught beginners “how to camp” without fear of being judged or embarrassed. Clearly, Rose’s own affinity toward nature and wilderness shaped the type of program he offered at the Y, but the fact that these outdoor trips became annual events and attracted consistent participation demonstrates the enthusiasm it generated among members. Black Oaklanders benefitted from Rose’s innovative direction of the Y, but they also benefitted from publicly funded recreation such as the programs available at the de Fremery Community Center.

The de Fremery Community Center and Park, named after the original property owners, had been purchased by the city of Oakland in 1908. Situated on Adeline and Poplar in West Oakland, the park included baseball fields, basketball courts, and tennis courts. The original residence, an 1860s Victorian mansion, was built by San Francisco banker James de Fremery. Built among oak groves, it was intended to be a retreat from the growing industrial and crowded streets of San Francisco.72 However, as Oakland itself became more urbanized with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, the de Fremery estate offered less of a buffer from the encroachment of industrialization. Influenced by the Progressive movement, de Fremery supported causes aimed at preventing urban decay and providing philanthropic resources to women and children.73 Contributing to the cause, James de Fremery Jr. sold the entire estate to the city specifically for use as a public park. Initially utilized by a predominately white neighborhood, the demographics changed at the beginning of World War II because of the park’s proximity to the port and train lines. Black war industry workers moved into West Oakland, bringing their families and changing the makeup of the city.

The BTWCC provided one option for Black servicemen during the war, when they were excluded from the San Francisco USO Club, but in the East Bay, Black clubwomen decided to turn de Fremery into a hospitality house. Led by Frances Mary Albrier, a Black clubwoman and longtime political activist, the de Fremery Hospitality Committee organized recreation, social events, and dances for the area’s Black soldiers (Figure 1).74 When the war ended, the center was turned back over to the city for public recreation. Here, the guiding hand of Dorothy Pitts helped transition de Fremery from a USO hospitality house to an integral part of Oakland’s Black community in the late 1940s and ’50s.

Figure 1.

L-R: Francis Albrier, Harry Rocker, unidentified woman, and Kenneth Johnson standing on the steps of the de Fremery Park United Service Organization (USO) building, Oakland, California, June 22, 1942. Digital image from the African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph collection, MS 189, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library.

Courtesy of African American Museum & Library at Oakland

Figure 1.

L-R: Francis Albrier, Harry Rocker, unidentified woman, and Kenneth Johnson standing on the steps of the de Fremery Park United Service Organization (USO) building, Oakland, California, June 22, 1942. Digital image from the African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph collection, MS 189, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library.

Courtesy of African American Museum & Library at Oakland

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Pitts graduated from LeMoyne College in 1935, a historically Black college in Memphis, Tennessee.75 She then received her master’s in French from Howard University in Washington, DC. While still a college student at LeMoyne, Pitts took a summer job with the Memphis Park Commission in 1934. This work sparked her interest in recreation, but the blatant disparity between white and Black recreational facilities left her feeling discouraged. After finishing her s degree at Howard, Pitts worked for Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, the Bureau of Census, and for the Surgeon General before joining the American Red Cross during World War II.76 First stationed in the Philippines, Pitts served as program director of a small recreation club. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Yokohama, Japan, to set up a hobby and craft shop in a much larger recreation center.77 Of her experience she wrote: “These were the days of the segregated army and we served several thousand troops, mostly Negro soldiers.…This experience served to inbred in me an awareness of human social needs and to expand my knowledge in administration and recreational activities.”78 Pitts’s prior experiences with public recreational work made her a prime candidate for the de Fremery position. More importantly, her background influenced the way she viewed the function of recreation. For Pitts, recreational programs served as a way to develop better people and provided the space needed for growth and development.79

Pitts signed a two-year contract in 1947 and became the first African American resident director of a recreational center in the United States. She lived in the de Fremery house for eight and a half years, serving as a counselor to teenagers, scheduling and offering recreational activities, and organizing community events.80 Pitts’s leadership helped turn de Fremery into a bedrock of the West Oakland community, but her presence alone does not account for the center’s success in drawing out neighborhood support and participation. There needed to be like-minded people to lead the programs. And perhaps, most importantly, there needed to be participants who believed in the benefits of these programs: young men and women who actively sought out community space and eagerly joined in the classes and activities offered.

Under Pitts’s reign, the de Fremery house typically offered classes in music, drama, African folk dance, and ballroom dancing, as well as youth councils, athletics (for boys and girls), and charm classes for women and escort training for men. There were vocational classes, educational classes, adult arts and crafts, and youth workshops (in subjects such as politics, education, and drug awareness). The main hall of the center was also used as a gathering spot for holidays, debutante balls, dances, and concerts.81 It is clear from Pitts’s background and from her own writing that she believed these programs could mold the youth into productive and responsible citizens, beliefs that drew from both racial uplift and progressive ideology.

In 1947, the year that Pitts took over as director, Ruth Beckford started the first recreational modern dance department in the United States at de Fremery. That same year, she became the first Black member of the Orchesis Modern Dance Honor Society at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1950 helped found the Oakland Dance Association.82 Born and raised in Oakland, Beckford believed that through dance she could help people strengthen their bodies and minds. Talking about her time at de Fremery in a documentary titled Claiming Open Spaces, Beckford stated that she did not see herself as just a dance instructor, but instead as a “trainer of the whole personality.” Dance was about discipline, strength, rhythm, and dedication. These were skills she knew helped her students do well in all other aspects of their lives.83 Former student Delores Alexander Brown recalled of her time under Beckford, “I think Modern Dance gave me a sense of discipline…it gave me a sense of pride for myself and made me proud of my peers…it makes you feel strong; your mind gets strong.”84 Young women dominated Beckford’s classes, but young men participated as well. Each dance session always concluded with a concert open to local residents, giving the students the opportunity to display their new skills and gain confidence performing in front of audiences.

Directors and program instructors like Ruth Beckford embedded lessons about confidence, pride, and discipline in every class they offered. The immediate appeal of attending a recreational center might be the social outlet, which on its own was still an important community function. It helped establish relationships with friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers, even strangers outside the bounds of school and work. But in addition to the socializing function, recreational activities offered at de Fremery instilled qualities of character and confidence that both leaders and participants believed were significant. These qualities were likewise emphasized in the charm school workshops led by Annette Starr Bruce.

Like Ruth Beckford, Annette Starr was born and raised in Oakland, where she attended Golden Gate Junior High School, and graduated from University High School in 1939.85 In her 1936 junior high yearbook, Starr was described as “tidy”; she listed her hobbies as “sports,” and she stated her ambition was to become a “great athlete.” Naturally, she listed her favorite hangout as the “playground.”86 At first glance one might see a disconnect between a young girl who favored sports and the outdoors becoming a charm school instructor. However, at the core, the two activities share many characteristics. Women in the 1930s were not making major headway in the world of sports apart from school teams or local recreational leagues. Within Starr’s class of forty-eight students, only three other girls listed their hobbies as sports. Regardless, sports have traditionally been associated with building leadership, confidence, and, obviously, athletic skill. Starr’s personal papers do not shed light on her childhood, but if sports were her hobby and her ambition was to become a great athlete, it is safe to assume that she played lots of sports as a youth, developing useful leadership skills by the time she became an adult.

As a charm and etiquette instructor, Starr tried to promote confidence in her students. She began teaching classes at the de Fremery center in 1950, but she eventually opened up her own studio in 1954. A handbook for her workshop includes an entire section on how people “arm” themselves in public through shyness, fear, or suspicion. Part of the class was devoted to overcoming these traits and learning, through poise, to disarm others who displayed them.87 Another section of the handbook dealt directly with appearance and the proper exercises to tone and accentuate every part of the body. There was an emphasis on personal hygiene, removing hair to appear more feminine, and having proper posture.

The focus on proper appearance harkens back to the rhetoric of the politics of respectability, the strong ideology among the Black middle class at the turn of the century that stressed the application of temperance, cleanliness, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity as a means to uplift the race generally, and Black women specifically.88 It supports Kevin Gaines’s argument that racial uplift ideology reinforced patriarchal notions of gender and class. As historian Victoria Wolcott argues, however, by the 1940s it was more about what she terms working-class respectability.89 Black men and women were more concerned about the opinions of members within their own community than in seeking the approval of their white peers.90 Starr’s workshops aimed to empower young women and teach them the skills to have a poised and self-assured demeanor in public. Reflecting back, former students remembered Starr saying, “You must emphasize the positive; minimize the negative…look at what you like about yourself, emphasize that, highlight that.”91

The young women who completed her course, and later the adults who attended her charm class, left feeling like they had gained skills to make positive changes in their lives. Many students sent Starr pictures of themselves, professional headshots with notes of gratitude. In an undated letter to Starr, one admirer of her work wrote:

Your work in the community has been a potent factor in shaping the lives of many young people. I remember very keenly the classes you conducted in Oakland, at the de Fremery Recreational Center where you taught the young people the fundamentals of life, namely: education, self-help, poise, recreation, beauty and how to apply for employment. Your efforts in this direction have not been in vain and it will show up in the lives of those you taught so diligently in the years that lie ahead of them.…There should be a “RENAISSANCE” in the Bay Area to help the young people as well as adults, and this can be done with the help of the leaders in Churches, Lodges, YMCA, YWCA and Recreational Centers. Awake my friends and in the language of Emerson, “Hitch your Wagon to a Star.”92

The letter is signed by E. A. Johnson Sr. The only other information in the letter indicates he was a resident of Oakland, and there is no reference to him having had a daughter pass through one of Starr’s workshops. As a community observer, Mr. Johnson recognized not only the benefits of Annette Starr’s classes but of recreational programs in general. He advocated for a “renaissance” grounded in getting young people involved in community-based recreational centers. Social spaces, he believed, provided education, self-help, and the skills necessary to obtain gainful employment. All of the programs at de Fremery had the goal of molding confident men and women, but not necessarily to impress white society. Yes, program leaders like Starr, Beckford, and Pitts wanted to develop better citizens, but first and foremost, they wanted members to have pride in themselves. The process started within. Letters like the one sent in by Mr. Johnson demonstrate that this was a community effort.

Black community centers were vital parts of urban landscapes throughout the early twentieth century. In response to global events like the Great Depression and the world wars, these centers shifted to meet the demands of the times. The three case studies examined in this work represented the ongoing legacy of Black institution building that began as soon as California entered the union as a free state. While the centers shared similar goals, they were shaped by both the distinct visions of their directors and the demographics of their members.

On February 23, 1945, Robert Flippin submitted a letter of resignation to Douglas Simpson, president of the board of directors for the Booker T. Washington Community Center.93 As director, Flippin had used his position not only to bring attention to San Francisco’s blatant racial inequalities but also to help alleviate them. Still, he felt ineffective in carrying out his necessary responsibilities. Writing to Simpson, Flippin regretted that he could not devote all of his time and energy to the center itself. The catch-all nature of the services provided at community centers demanded more from the directors and program leaders. In his seventeen years as director, Flippin had overseen an incredible growth of Black recreation, as well as political activism that fought against racial discrimination in all its forms. Ultimately, Flippin felt he was doing a disservice to the BTWCC by diverting energy in different directions.

Initially, Simpson and the board of directors rejected Flippin’s letter of resignation, proposing instead more funds and staff to help him continue his work. After presenting Flippin’s letter of resignation to the board, Simpson wrote: “It was their unanimous opinion that a new situation has now been created in which the Director and the Board have a real opportunity to make the Booker T. Washington Community Center a strong community force…because of your untiring efforts for community good, your loyalty and devotion to the cause.”94 Flippin stayed at the BTWCC through the summer of 1945 before passing the torch to James Stratten, another activist with a long history in Black recreation.95

Flippin later took a position as a parole officer at San Quentin prison and started the first Alcoholics Anonymous program within a prison in the entire county. He counseled incarcerated men, invited inspirational speakers to address them, and became an advocate for inmates to the outside public.96 Flippin had dedicated his career to fighting for his community and spoke out against the racial inequalities that constricted the lives of so many Black Americans. The BTWCC continued to grow after Flippin’s departure, but as the 1950s came to an end, Black community centers began to lose ground as central institutions in people’s lives.

The end of World War II resulted in job loss, deindustrialization, and, as historian Robert Self demonstrates in Oakland, decentralization.97 Self argues that the industrial suburban corridor surrounding Oakland—San Leandro, Milpitas, Fremont, and Hayward—attracted industry and homebuyers with lower taxes and racial residential barriers, excluding African Americans. For Oakland, San Francisco, and similar wartime boom-cities, suburban development policies undermined their economic stability. Speaking about the impact of suburban growth, Self writes: “Homeowners in the suburban East Bay…participated in a regional and ultimately national redistribution of public resources and public responsibility. In simplest terms, the property tax base moved to the suburbs…while the greater proportion of social problems, and financial responsibility for them, remained in the central city.”98 For recreational and community centers, this meant less municipal investment and further strain on social services agencies.

Reflecting about her time as director of de Fremery, Dorothy Pitts referred to the period between 1947 and 1964 as the golden age of public recreation for the Oakland Recreation Department (ORD). Pitts had always understood that her job was to help each individual reach their full potential, a responsibility that required complete immersion in the community. Pitts and her staff established personal relationships with members, their parents, and neighborhood residents, and she networked across agencies and other community centers. When Pitts was promoted to district supervisor for West Oakland, she trained new recreational leaders who then took positions in other centers throughout the city. At the center of her philosophy was the belief that children and teens learned by doing; that to gain confidence and develop leadership skills they had to think for themselves and be part of the process. In discussing juvenile delinquency, she argued: “You do not assist teenagers by promoting the prevention of juvenile delinquency. You assist them to plan, organize and execute programs of their choice—programming designed by them, for them that interest and challenge them.…If you accomplish this goal, the by-product will be the prevention of juvenile delinquency.”99

Unfortunately, by the early 1960s economic and social disruptions left institutions like de Fremery vulnerable. Robert Self shows that between 1945 and the 1960s, West Oakland received none of the capital investment that fueled suburban growth outside the city.100 Property values plummeted for Black homeowners, preventing them from being able to sell. Renters lived in dilapidated apartment units, unable to relocate and unwelcome in white neighborhoods. In a time of great economic strain, Pitts found her superiors at ORD unwilling to provide the resources she needed to continue her usual programming. She made the difficult decision to resign in 1965 because ORD cut the leadership training programs and limited her responsibilities to teaching first aid and basic center supervision. Writing in the 1990s about her frustration, Pitts recalled:

I didn’t respond, because he [my boss] didn’t know I was teaching FIRST AID to those in the ghetto, in the areas where the racially restricted covenants no longer were observed. I was teaching FIRST AID to those who needed the REAL FIRST AID against racism and misunderstanding, constantly battered against lost manhood or womanhood.101

No longer afforded either the resources or discretion to run de Fremery as she wanted, Pitts left and briefly worked for the Richmond Community Development Demonstration Project. In 1966 she became the senior citizens program director for the city of Berkeley, staying until her retirement in 1978 from her position as chief of the Division on Aging.102

Robert Flippin, Dorothy Pitts, Joshua Rose, and the legion of program leaders who worked alongside them led recreation centers before and after a transitional moment for both the Bay Area’s Black population and for the cities in general. They adapted their missions and services to try and meet the demand imposed by a rapidly growing population and a fracturing economy in the postwar period: a period significantly shaped by wide-ranging, deep-seated, and persistent racial inequality, locally and nationally.

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement galvanized African Americans across the country. Black political organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality grew as thousands engaged in protests and civil disobedience. Whereas the early Black recreational pioneers had focused so much on learning the skills to succeed within the system, the radicalism of the late 1960s, in particular, was about destroying the system. The Black middle-class sensibilities espoused by the clubwomen of the 1920s became outdated as African Americans faced crippling poverty, crime, and police brutality. The BTWCC, de Fremery, and integrated YMCAs/YWCAs continued to operate and provide safe spaces for recreation, but it became increasingly clear that they could not meet the burden of transforming their neighborhoods. While they continued to help their members, these were no longer exclusively Black spaces. Regardless, parks, playgrounds, and community centers continued to be used as sites of Black political organizing.

In 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, representing the profound shift in Black political activism from civil rights to Black Power. More revolutionary than most previous Black organizations, the BPP challenged police brutality, framed Black communities as internal colonies within the United States, and connected the domestic Black freedom struggle with the global fight against American imperialism.103 Locally, they started community programs that in some ways replicated the goals of earlier institutions: providing health care and breakfast programs, and investing in Black businesses. In West Oakland, the Panthers recruited members and held large rallies in de Fremery Park. In this way, the park symbolized militant Black political resistance and became a site of strength and hope. When member Bobby Hutton was murdered by police in 1968, the Panthers renamed de Fremery Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park, a name still affectionately used for the park by many Oaklanders today.

Community centers remain a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in 2023. They concentrate on services for children and young teens, primarily with after-school programs, sports leagues, and summer camps. They are no longer racially segregated and, depending on the location, can have a diverse class as well as ethno-racial constituency. The history of Black recreation offers a window into how urban space was contested in the first half of the twentieth century; how recreation centers contributed to a long tradition of Black institution building in response to racial segregation. During World War II the Bay Area saw local Black residents uniquely making these recreational spaces their own. In the programs they built and through the largely unsung work of the remarkable group of people who led them, Black recreation centers provided their communities with safety and belonging: a powerful achievement during a time of change and upheaval.


Robert Flippin, “The Negro in San Francisco,” August 26, 1943, Stewart-Flippin Papers (hereafter cited as SFP), box 97–11, folder 204, Robert Flippin, Personal Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.


Flippin, “The Negro in San Francisco,” 5.


Flippin, “The Negro in San Francisco,” 4.


Marilynn Johnson, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 8.


Scholars who examine Black recreation have shown that in major cities Black migrants demanded greater access to forms of leisure and entertainment—seeing these activities as their right, and not just a luxury. See Brain McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).


Nina Mjagkij, Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852–1946 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994); Nina Mjagkij, “True Manhood: The YMCA and Racial Advancement, 1890–1930,” in Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City, ed. Nina Mjagkij and Margaret Spratt (New York: New York University Press, 1997).


Black clubwomen participated in politically active social clubs that fought for suffrage, anti-lynching legislation, education for Black children, and against forms of racial equality. They were often college educated (or had received some form of private/public education) and came from the small but growing Black middle class. Many of these early groups formed in the aftermath of the Civil War during the Reconstruction period as Black women advocated for the right to vote, and to demand enforcement of the newly passed rights given to the formerly enslaved. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).


Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 3. Lots of work has been done on the transformation of cities, including with recreation, that demonstrate the process of Eastern/Southern Europeans gaining access to whiteness at the expense of African Americans and communities of color. See David Roediger, Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005); The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 2007); Victoria Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Delores Nason McBroome, Parallel Communities: African Americans in California’s East Bay, 1850–1963 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993).


Charles S. Johnson, The Negro War Worker in San Francisco, a Local Self-survey, 1944, p. 51. Technical staff: Charles S. Johnson, Herman H. Long, and Grace Jones. A project financed by a San Francisco citizen, administered by the YWCA, and carried out in connection with the race relations program of the American Missionary Association, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, director, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. This study considered a fairly small sample size but demonstrates that white-owned businesses in San Francisco often restricted or prohibited Black patrons. A much broader argument about this time period is made by Victoria Wolcott in Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), which starts the analysis before World War II and includes Northern cities such as Detroit and Buffalo.


Avile, Popular Culture, 5.


Nina Mjagkij, Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852–1946 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 17.


Nina Mjagkij, “True Manhood: The YMCA and Racial Advancement, 1890–1930,” in Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City, ed. Nina Mjagkij and Margaret Spratt (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 141.


Mjagkij, “True Manhood.” Historiography on Reconstruction and Jim Crow has long shown how part of the social project embedded in segregation was to emasculate Black men and deprive Black women the protections and respect extended to white women. In all ways, segregation functioned to reinforce race, gender, and notions of sexual inferiority. Denying access to recreation and leisure was equally important in that project as other public/private spaces.


Mjagkij, “True Manhood.”


Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 113. The entirety of this study complicates uplift theory and strategy by arguing that Black elites and Black intellectuals tried to discredit race essentialism and white supremacy, but ultimately reinforced these ideas by accepting class and gender hierarchies. Writing about the intersection of Black Nationalism and racial uplift ideology, Gaines highlights how Garveyism and Black intellectuals who ascribed to his philosophy were often influenced by Darwinian ideas of survival of the fittest. “Garvey was hardly the first—nor the last—to apply popular Darwinian notions of race struggle and ‘survival of the fittest’ to discussions of the destiny of African Americans.…For Ferris and others, underlying and guiding all these concerns was the equation of uplift and power with patriarchal authority and of race integrity with manhood” (107).


W. E. B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, May 1919, 14.


Johnson, The Negro War Worker in San Francisco, 51.


Johnson, The Negro War Worker in San Francisco, 51.


Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters.


“De Fremery Easter Party,” Oakland Tribune, April 28, 1946, 22.


Stated in that report: “In 1939, 21.9 percent of the families in the membership of this Center received some form of public aid, other than Health services.” Emily Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study: Preliminary Report on the Booker T. Washington Community Center,” 1939, p. 1, SFP, box 97–18, folder 357.


Robert Flippin, “List of Accomplishments,” undated, SFP, box 97–10, folder 170.


Mr. Olwen Davies to Robert Flippin, letter, October 10, 1939; Alfred G. Fisk to Robert Flippin, letter, May 16, 1945; Pauline Friedlander to Robert Flippin, letter, May 21, 1941; Mrs. W. E. Knierieman to Robert Flippin, letter, March 16, 1944; Congressman Edward F. O’Day to Robert Flippin, letter, April 27, 1940. Stewart-Flippin Papers.


Albert Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900–1954 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993), 28.


Robert Flippin, “Cover letter to Mrs. Augustine Seville—application for director position at BWCC,” July 14, 1937, SFP, box 97–18, folder 348.


Flippin, “Cover letter to Mrs. Augustine Seville.”


Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton Jr. is a significant sociological study of Black life in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. The massive amount of research was conducted by field workers working under the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. In general, it provides an analysis of Black migration, community structure, and the racial tension Southern Blacks confronted in the city.


Job application form to Booker T. Washington Community Center, typed. Signed by Robert B. Flippin, dated July 12, 1937.


James Murray, “What’s Being Done about Housing for Negroes in the Bay Area?” San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 1943, 10.


Broussard, Black San Francisco, 176.


Broussard, Black San Francisco, 176.


Letter from Emily Huntington to Robert Flippin, May 26, 1939, SFP, box 97–18, folder 352; Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 8. In the original constitution, the statement of objectives was short and vague and contained a religious aspect. It stated: “The object of this organization shall be to promote Social, Physical, Scriptural, and Industrial development of the people in San Francisco.” In the 1938 revision, the statement of objectives stated: “It shall be the purpose of this organization to promote a wholesome community-wide recreational, educational, and character building program for the adult and juvenile citizens of San Francisco and the establishment and maintenance of an adequate Center in which to house such and other approved activities.” The change resulted from a collaborative effort by the BWCC board, staff, and registered members that reflected a general shift in how they envisioned the BWCC functioning. According to the Berkeley researchers, the change allowed for the “adoption of different techniques” in meeting the social problems and social needs of the Black community. The researchers commented, “While the professional group worker expects his techniques to produce certain results in the way of character development, to the lay members of this Board ‘character building’ is a much more definite thing.” The revised objectives also specified the desire to reach both adults and young adults in their programs.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 1.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 1.


Segregated facilities were not inscribed in law as in the South, but de facto segregation resulted in ethnicity groups opening their own institutions, as seen with BTWCC but also Japanese YMCAs. As part of the UC Berkeley study, a residential map was included on page 4 that included the locations of parks, playgrounds, and additional community centers. Within a few blocks of each other was a Russian Children’s Day Home, a Japanese YMCA at Buchanan and Turk Street, and a Japanese YWCA at Buchanan and Webster Street.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study.” Community Chests were fundraising organizations in the United States and Canada that collected money from local businesses and workers and distributed it to community projects. The first Community Chest, “Community Fund,” was founded in 1913 in Cleveland, Ohio, by the Federation for Charity and Philanthropy. The number of Community Chest organizations increased from 39 to 353 between 1919 and 1929, and surpassed 1,000 by 1948.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 5.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 5.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center, 2031 Bush Street,” undated, SFP, box 97–18, folder 359.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 1.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 1.


Robert Flippin to Miss Charlie Mae Boozer, letter, not dated, SFP, box 97–18, folder 350.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” not dated, SFP, box 97–18, folder 358.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” 1.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” 2.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” 3.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” 3.


“Booker T. Washington Community Center Counseling and Information,” 3.


Edward W. Koehler, public relations representative, to Robert Flippin, letter, Feburary 21, 1942, folder 353, box 97–18, Stewart-Flippin Papers, Robert Flippin, Personal Papers, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.


“Booker T. Washington Community News,” May 8, 1942, SFP, box 97–18, folder 358.


“Booker T. Washington Community News,” May 8, 1942.


“Booker T. Washington Community News,” May 1, 1942, SFP, box 97–18, folder 358.


“Board Meeting July 1942, Agenda,” SFP, box 97–18, folder 360.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 6.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 10.


“Annual Report of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, 1929,” SFP, box 97–18, folder 357.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 10.


Huntington, “Neighborhood Centers Study,” 11. From the above report: “The Center has eliminated activities which were poorly conducted.…activities which would give individuals opportunities for self-expression were substituted for those numerous groups. The Board has required study on the part of staff members and has itself developed an interest in program planning in relationship to community needs. Participation in activities is not limited to those who could meet rigid individual standards. These are taken of the fact that the Center is interested more in the growth of the individuals than in the successful conduct of activities.”


Robert Flippin to “Mothers,” newsletter, March 22, 1944, SFP, box 97–18, folder 362.


“Negro Shipyard Workers!” Bulletin, April 4, SFP, box 97–18, folder 365.


“Ritz Klub History,” undated, Joshua Rose Papers, box 1, folder 1, “Biographical Miscellaneous 1920s–1980s,” African American Museum and Library.


“Joshua A Rose: Work History to 1950s,” undated, Joshua Rose Papers, box 1, folder 1, “Biographical Miscellaneous 1920s–1980s,” African American Museum and Library.


“Joshua A Rose: Work History to 1950s.”


“Joshua A Rose: Work History to 1950s,” 1.


Norine West, “Camp Indian Head has Unprecedented Success,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 6, 1932, 6.


West, “Camp Indian Head,” 6.


“Ideal Vacations Offered Boys at Camp Indian Head: Josh Rose to Head Up Big Summer for ‘Y,’ “Pittsburgh Courier, June 23, 1934, 6.


“Ideal Vacations,” 6.


Mary Ellen Butler, “Joshua R. Rose: Oakland’s Pioneer Leader, The Northern California Center for Afro-Americans History and Life (Fall 1990), 5.


Abigail A. Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 10.


Wolcott, Race, Riots and Roller Coasters.


Chance Grable, “De Fremery Park and Recreation Center West Oakland,” Shaping San Francisco’s Digital Archive @FoundSF, 2015, title=De_Fremery_Park_and_Recreation_Center_West_Oakland.


Grable, “De Fremery Park.”


McBroome, Parallel Communities, 115. Frances Mary Albrier deserves a history of her own for her lifetime career of activism and leadership. In the 1920s she was a Black Cross Nurse and vice president of the organization’s women’s auxiliary. She was an early supporter of Garvey and the UNIA, believing that Black self-determination was essential to racial uplift. Needing income, she left the Black Cross Nurses Corps and worked as a Pullman maid before becoming a welder in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards in World War II.


It is now LeMoyne-Owen College. In 1968 the two colleges merged.


Dorothy Pitts, A Special Place for Special People: The De Fremery Story (Memphis: Better Communications, 1993), 30.


Pitts, A Special Place, 30.


Pitts, A Special Place, 30.


Austin Allen and Gloria House, writers, Claiming Open Spaces, Urban Garden Films (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1995), DVD. Interviews with Dorothy Pitt, David Hillard, and Ruth Beckford.


Pitts, A Special Place, 143.


Pitts, A Special Place, 134–40.


Ruth Beckford, interviewed by The History Makers, March 31, 2002,


Allen and House, Claiming Open Spaces.


Pitts, A Special Place, 112.


“Golden Gate Anchor Yearbook,” January 1936, Annette Starr Bruce Hudson Papers, box 5:2 “Education,” African American Museum and Library at Oakland.


“Golden Gate Anchor Yearbook.”


Annette Bruce, “Teen Girls Charm Workshop, 1958,” Oakland Recreation Department folder, Oakland History Room.


Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 187.


Victoria W. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 9–10.


Wolcott, Remaking Respectability, 9–10.


Pitts, A Special Place, 76.


E. A. Johnson Sr., letter to Annette Starr, undated, Annette Starr Bruce Hudson Papers, box 5:4 “Correspondence,” African American Museum and Library at Oakland.


Robert B. Flippin to Douglas Simpson, Letter of Resignation, February 23, 1945, SFP, box 97–18, folder 345, correspondence O–W.


Douglas Simpson to Robert Flippin, June 11, 1945, SFP, box 97–18, folder 345, correspondence O–W.


Stratten migrated to San Francisco in 1941 and worked as the regional supervisor of the YMCA-USO and the West Coast area director during the war. As director, Stratten became a strong leader in the city’s Black community, becoming the first Black member of the San Francisco Grand Jury, a commissioner in the redevelopment agency, and the first Black member of the San Francisco School Board. Broussard, Black San Francisco, 184.


“AA to Hear Parole Officer,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 1956, 7; “Robert B. Flippin Memorial Service,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 3, 1963, 23; Albert Broussard, “Robert Browning Flippin (1903–1963)” Biographical Sketch, November 2, 2015, Black Past,


Robert Self, American Babylon, 129.


Self, American Babylon, 130.


Pitts, A Special Place, 47.


Self, American Babylon, 139.


Pitts, A Special Place, 132.


Pitts, A Special Place, 132.


Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 3.