HomeMoorestown NewsProtecting a ‘sacred place’

Protecting a ‘sacred place’

Historical society wants to keep West End Community Center alive

The New Jersey Historical Commission Board has awarded a $25,000 grant to the Historical Society of Moorestown to help fund the latter’s preservation effort – the “West End Center Oral History Project” – through the commission’s Inclusive History Grant Program.

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Moorestown native Richard Gray reviewed the history of the West End Community Center and shared his plan at the township library last month to protect the legacy of a place important to Moorestown. His talk was part of the historical society’s “History Speaks” lecture series.

“The telling of the story of the West End Center isn’t … my story is just an act,” Gray said at the library event. “It really is a process of people telling their stories over and over again, and if I had told you these same stories 30 years ago, they would be different. They would have a different perspective of what’s going on.”

The community center was originated and managed by Black men and women in the West End neighborhood as a space where residents could congregate, celebrate and create programs to build strong community relationships – all in the face of a discriminatory policy that prohibited them using the Main Street center.

According to the township website, the center’s building was destroyed after the community house was eventually integrated in the 1960s, but it once served as a place of belonging where social ties were deepened through purposeful interaction.

“It’s not just that the center is a sacred place, but the land that it was on is also a sacred place,” Gray explained. “When you step onto it, it feels different. There are stories that come from it. There’s memories that come from it.”

Roxanna Yancy was a strong advocate for the renovation project and township-sponsored recreation program that helped start the West End center. She was a teacher for many years at Moorestown’s School No. 7, retiring in 1933 after 35 years.

Yancy was responsible for the establishment of the first kindergarten for Black children in Moorestown and she was active in the International League for Peace and Freedom. Through her efforts, a branch of the YWCA was established in the west end.

James Adams was director of the West End Community Center for nearly 25 years. An influential mentor and role model for the youths who spent time at the center, he fought every day to break down racial barriers in the township.

According to the historical society’s Facebook page, Yancy and Adams worked to renovate and set up recreation programs at the center. The land that the center once called home now belongs to the township’s Yancy-Adams pocket park.

“For 25 years, the center was a safe space for people to collect and gather, to share and have a good time, but also to do purposeful events and collective work,” Gray noted. “It was a place of comfort for the community.”

According to Gray there is limited public information about the West End center, but that’s where the grant comes in.

“There’s a box of actual first-hand records, budgets, minutes, of the West End center that are at the Moorestown historical society, so as a part of the grant, we want to be able to digitize those and turn them into a publicly available database where people can begin to look at them and analyze them, and also to preserve them,” he pointed out.

“We also want to do outreach to people within the community because … we have all this gold that is in people’s attics and basements that we need to get out,” Gray added, “because what ends up happening is when people pass, people don’t know that that’s value when it gets thrown away.”

Other recipients of the Inclusive History Grant Program include the Camden County Historical Society, the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society, Historic Cold Spring Village, the Hoboken Historical Museum, and the Morris County and Timbuctoo historical societies.

Inclusive History Grants will fund the exploration of under-represented narratives in New Jersey history with a goal of expanding inclusive, community-centered interpretation and resources offered by historic sites and history organizations, according to the New Jersey Department of State’s historical commission site.

Grants can be used in support of research and interpretive planning efforts to tell a more diverse and complex story for a public audience.


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