The South Side Community Center of Ithaca, New York: Built through "Community Mothering," 1938

Article excerpt

Eleanor Roosevelt lauded members of the Frances Harper Women's Club for their foundational work in building the South Side Community Center. In her words, this club "realized a community need and went to work in a practical way to solve the problem." (2) The creation of the South Side Community Center in 1938 was the culmination of collective activist work constructed around the ideologies and efforts of an African American women's volunteer club in Ithaca, New York. Black women in this city merged their Christian beliefs and collective activism through the Frances Harper Club in order to obtain a public space for exercising their beliefs in racial equality and interracial civil rights. This movement developed in tandem with other black women's volunteer clubs across northern cities and southern locales. The efforts of the national black women's club movement were based on the ethos of social uplift and the rights of black people. Black women's clubs across the country established homes for elderly people, organized mother's clubs and literary societies, and promoted anti-lynching campaigns. Ithaca's Frances Harper Women's Club galvanized resources to transform their specific community-mothering ethic into a tangible community institution.


Ithaca is located in Tompkins County to the northwest of Binghamton and the southwest of Syracuse. African Americans have lived in Tompkins County since the early nineteenth century. The initial African American community formed through the collaboration of artisans, craftspeople, and day laborers. In 1833, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church became this community's first institution. The church was founded to protest segregated seating at the predominately white Methodist church. The 136 African American residents of Ithaca raised five dollars, purchased land from a local developer, and erected St. James AME Zion Church, a one-story church in the heart of the African American settlement on Wheat Street, which later became Cleveland Avenue. (3) This church soon served as the center of political and social activity for African Americans in Ithaca. In 1848, Frederick Douglass addressed a church-sponsored anti-slavery rally there. (4) Church members were also part of Ithaca's Underground Railroad network. Even though racial tensions swirled regarding church memberships, there was interracial solidarity on slavery and Ithaca's role in the Underground Railroad network. Once fugitives made it to Ithaca, they were sheltered in homes owned by both African Americans and whites. The known addresses of these homes were 325 South Cayuga Street, 113 East Seneca Street, and 1457 East Shore Drive.

By the 1850s, the small yet vibrant black community was composed of a mixture of skilled and unskilled laborers, southern and northern-born blacks, and runaways who lived, worshipped, and worked together. A small number of African American families found housing on the north side of Ithaca by the end of the 1850s. These families tended to be southern-born former slaves or fugitives who managed to stay, though they did not possess the same skills as African Americans living on the south side. The members of St. James AME Zion Church, located on the south side, had lived in Tompkins County for at least a generation and consisted mainly of skilled laborers. Social divisions arose, and the southern newcomers decided to branch off and create their own neighborhood church, the Wesleyan Methodist (colored) Chapel in 1857. By the early nineteenth century, a period marked by a slight growth in population, social diversity within the African American community was both apparent and institutionalized through the establishment of two churches with distinct social differences. In 1903, the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was renamed the Calvary Baptist Church. The establishment of different denominations for black Christians living in Ithaca heightened these social distinctions. …


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