Youth - Woven With Words
Programs for Youth in the Twentieth Century
Several people contributed to this article
In many respects, the problems and challenges faced by African Americans throughout Berks County history reflected larger trends in the United States. It is not surprising, then, that the 1930s and 1960s—times of activism and concern about the need for social change across the country—present some of the strongest examples of local programs for African American youth.
In April, 1934, a group of African American and white community leaders called the Inter-Racial Committee began holding meetings to plan a recreation center in Reading for African Americans, who were restricted in recreation, the committee said, by “economic conditions and local custom” (“Minutes”). The group surveyed the African American community to determine recreational needs, noting that while a small number of African American boys used the Olivet Boys club (mostly through their church teams) and a few African Americans used the YMCA or YWCA, overall, the recreational needs of African American youth were largely unmet.
In January 1936, the Fourth and Laurel Recreation Center was opened by the city in an abandoned school building, and two years later, leaders began to investigate the possibility of building a new center, as the facilities were run-down and inadequate—because there was no gym, basketball was played at Southwest Junior High. Nevertheless, the Fourth and Laurel Recreational Center played an important role in the community. Activities included music, arts and crafts, drama, hobby clubs, a library, dancing, Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, lectures, dances, and a variety of sports. In the years between 1951 and 1954, attendance often reached 15,000 per year. Eventually, however, as the city’s other recreational facilities became more integrated, Fourth and Laurel fell into disuse and was eventually closed.
By the 1960s and early 1970s, probably the most important organization serving African American youth was the YMCA. The YMCA had programs such as the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which helped place young people in jobs in the public and private sectors, and the Work-Reation program, which helped fourteen and fifteen year olds find work, mostly in public service jobs. These programs served youth from all backgrounds, including many African Americans. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the YMCA was its detached worker program. Detached social workers, including Gus Giddens, Samuel Richardson, and a number of others, worked long hours in unconventional settings with youth in the African American, white, and Hispanic communities in many ways. They helped defuse situations with gangs and helped youth find recreation, jobs, and opportunities for self-expression. Importantly, the YMCA recognized the need for African American youth to develop institutions that expressed their own identities. The YMCA rented the House of Soul from the City of Reading at a nominal fee and used it as a gathering place for African American youth from 1964 to 1969, until it was closed amid controversy. In addition, the YMCA developed “Understanding Black Power” classes to help the white community understand the new consciousness of African Americans. These sessions, sometimes painful and controversial, were a bold step at the time.
Another noteworthy organization was the Help One Another Fund (which became Youth of Yesterday in 1968), founded in 1962 by retired teacher Reba Templeton, which provided books for needy college students. Also deserving of mention is the Martin Luther King Junior Educational and Memorial Foundation of Berks County, founded through the efforts of Dorothy Nissenbaum, Edward Tull, and others, which helped disadvantaged students finance their college educations. By 1971, sixty-two students had been helped by the foundation.
More recently, the Reading branch of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and the Olivet Boys and Girls Clubs, which merged in 2004, have had the most significant impact on African American youth. By the time the groups merged, they were serving a combined 7,100 young people per year. Located in the Sixth Ward in Reading, the PAL Center and PAL Center for the Arts on Walnut Street run many programs, including sports, dance, music, theater, and provide meals for children and a safe after school haven for students. Olivet runs a similar variety of programs at its Mulberry, Clinton Street, and Oakbrook units. These combined organizations are taking up the legacy of those who worked in earlier years to find positive activities for youth.