Reimagining the Carver League, a historic center for the Black community in Pittsburg
With the future of a local segregation-era community center threatened, one woman who used its services growing up is hoping to save the historic building, but it’s unclear if she will succeed.
PITTSBURG — The only hint left today of what once went on at the white cinder block building on South Elm Street is the faded sign above the door that reads “Carver League.”
Starting in the mid-twentieth century when racial segregation was still a reality of everyday life in Pittsburg and continuing for decades afterwards, though, the Carver Social League, which now sits vacant, was a hub for Pittsburg’s Black community.
“I think a lot of people drive by it and don’t know what it really is,” says Lemuel Sheppard, 64, a local musician, public speaker and former member of the more or less defunct organization.
“It was a community center for Black people, so Black people could have someplace to go and socialize,” says Donna Jackson Campbell Brice, 76, who now lives in the Kansas City area but grew up in Pittsburg. “And there was no place else, you know, that you could do that, period.”
Most local residents today can’t remember segregation in Pittsburg, and in Brice’s view the conditions that once made having their own community center essential for the local Black community have changed. Considering its historic role, however, as the future of the long-neglected Carver League building is threatened, Brice is hoping to generate support for an effort to renovate it and turn it into a museum that honors the multicultural heritage of the area, including the contributions both of Black people and those of other ethnicities alike.
Named for the famous Black inventor and scientist George Washington Carver, the Carver League held its first meetings in the late 1940s at members’ homes and at the Frederick Douglass School — a school for Black students in first through eighth grades that opened in Pittsburg in 1913 and closed by 1950.
“People now say that they didn’t realize Pittsburg was ever that way,” Mattye Foxx, a longtime community leader and Carver League supporter, told the Morning Sun’s Nikki Patrick in 2001. “Well, it was. At Pittsburg High School, African Americans were not allowed to play in the school band or sing in the chorus. I don’t believe that the boys were allowed to play sports in the beginning.”
Female students, meanwhile, could only use the PHS pool on Fridays if they were Black, Foxx said.
“After graduating from high school, African American students still found themselves segregated on the college campus” at Pittsburg State University, writes Amanda Minton, director of the Crawford County Historical Museum. Black students could not live in the dorms, and dining areas were segregated.
Prior to the building of the Douglass School, however, local schools had been integrated.
Black soldiers fought in the Civil War under the command of Col. Samuel J. Crawford, the white Union Army officer and namesake of the county where Pittsburg is located, who became governor of Kansas by the end of the war. Black soldiers from Crawford County also fought in the 1898 Spanish-American War and both World War I and II.
That is not to say, however, that race relations were by any means always amicable in Pittsburg — located just a few miles from the Missouri state line in the heart of what had been disputed territory during the Civil War, but not founded itself until over a decade after the war.
There were at least four lynchings in Crawford County between 1885 and 1920 — and maybe more than that, if stories Brice heard from her grandmother as a young girl are true. The Ku Klux Klan also had a strong local presence in the early 20th century.
Minton notes that Black workers were brought into Southeast Kansas to break up local coal mine strikes around the turn of the century, contributing to racial tensions that led the mining towns of Croweburg, Edison, Yale and Fleming to segregate their schools.
Despite some of the Black miners refusing to work as “scabs” and joining the white strikers instead, as more Black families began moving to Pittsburg, voters approved a bond initiative to pay to build the Douglass School in a special election in 1912.
Brice briefly lived in Pittsburg in 1950, the year the Douglass School closed. Her family then moved back to Croweburg, where they’d previously been, before returning to Pittsburg in 1955.
“When we moved [back] to Pittsburg there was no Black school, but there had been,” says Brice (who prefers the term ‘of African descent’ but also uses that phrase interchangeably with ‘Black’ in conversation). “The lady that was our neighbor two doors down had taught school there, but when they closed the Black school down, she couldn’t get a job, because the white schools would not hire her.”
The Carver League was a safe space for the Black community in Pittsburg
By the time Brice moved back to Pittsburg, the Carver League had acquired two lots on South Elm Street for $300 and eventually raised enough money — $700 to start with — to build the cinder block community center, which was completed in stages in the early ‘50s.
Over the following years and decades, the Carver League was the site of baby showers, weddings and birthday parties. Groups that used the building included church groups, sewing circles, a men’s group, and the Modern Matrons — a women’s group that “concentrates on projects that enable the members to learn a craft and to use that craft to benefit needy people,” according to An Account of Afro-Americans in Southeast Kansas, 1884-1984 by Marguerite Mitchell Marshall.
“Back then, we had to have the Carver League, because Black people couldn’t go anywhere else,” says Lutrecia (Scroggins) Church, 74, who now lives in Bella Vista, Arkansas but grew up in Pittsburg and has been friends with Brice since they were both in elementary school. “Anything that a Black person needed to do had to be at the Carver League unless it was a function they could have at the church,” she says.
Brice, for her part, remembers the Carver League for “Teen Town.” Her fondest memory of the community center, in fact, is from when she was initiated into the club for teenagers on her 13th birthday at a surprise party at the Carver League.
Later, when Brice was attending PSU, she joined the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, one of four Black sororities and fraternities then active at PSU, but none of which had their own fraternity or sorority houses.
“We had our sorority meetings here, we had our little 25 cent parties here,” Brice says, standing in front of the vacant Carver League building, “so it was just someplace that we always knew we could go.”
Still, despite its crucial function — especially in its early years — of giving the local Black community a social gathering space, the Carver League eventually disintegrated as an organization, leaving the former community center abandoned.
“What happened is that the group aged out,” says Sheppard, “because even when I first got involved in it as a member, I think the board at that time, they were 70 and 80 years old.”
Sheppard, who still lives in Pittsburg and works at the public library, also points out that many Carver League supporters’ children, who might have kept the community center going, have ended up moving away.
“Nobody owns it,” Brice says of the building that today sits vacant on Elm Street. “They don’t have a board. It’s just here.”
The Carver League building may not be there much longer, however, if someone buys it at the upcoming county tax sale and decides to demolish it.
A bit more than $4,000 is currently owed on the building in back taxes. More than twice that much — over $10,000 — is owed, meanwhile, in special assessment fees to the City of Pittsburg for periodically mowing the grass on the property over several years.
Brice says she's paid to have the Carver League’s lawn mowed in recent years to avoid the city’s inflated fees, which are meant to discourage owners from neglecting their property. But the prospect of attempting to restore the long-disused building on her own is a daunting one for Brice.
“At one time I considered getting a loan and doing it,” she says, “but when I take on that obligation, I’ve still got all the repairs and everything to do, so I don’t think I should do that to myself, a retired person.”
Besides wanting to see the building renovated, Brice also envisions a reimagined purpose for it that would make it more inclusive than the original segregation-era organization was.
“My thought was ‘The Carver League Multicultural Diversity Center and Museum.’ That was my thought,” she says. “I think it would be a neat museum, not just for Black people.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Brice will be able to generate enough community support or outside interest to make that dream a reality.
It seems Brice may be able to get some assistance in her effort from the City of Pittsburg. Asked earlier this month whether the city government might forgive some of the mowing fees owed on the property as a way to support Brice’s project, City Manager Daron Hall initially declined to answer the question directly.
“I have been in contact with Donna for several years as she works to protect this historic building in Pittsburg,” Hall said in an email. “We will continue to work with her and the owners as requested.”
Hall clarified this week, however, that the city might be willing to negotiate reduced mowing fees. “Sure,” he said in an email Thursday when asked about that possibility.
Crawford County Counselor Jim Emerson says the county government would rather not be in the position of having to auction the Carver League property.
“I really don’t want to see that property on my sale list,” he says, but he has little choice. “We have to follow the rules.”
One fairly likely possibility — if no one pays the full amount owed on the property at the county tax sale — is that it will end up in the Pittsburg Land Bank, according to Emerson, which would give the city government greater control over the property’s future.
Hall initially declined to comment, however, on whether the city government has any plan or priority for how the property should be used if it ends up in its hands.
“Once a property goes to tax sale anything can happen,” he said in an email. “I would not be comfortable speculating on that.”
Although Brice has said she is confident Hall “will do what he can within the confines of his position financially and politically” to help her achieve her vision for the building, Hall clarified this week that “the city has no plans for the property” if it ends up in the land bank.
Funding questions surround the Carver League
For many years, from the late 1960s until 1990, the Carver League was supported by grant funding from the local United Way affiliate.
As Lutrecia Church recalls, the Carver League “was supported and funded partially by the United Way,” she says, before adding “I think it was funded mostly by the United Way.”
According to Duane Dreiling, executive director of United Way of Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas, records maintained by the nonprofit don’t go back far enough to shed further light on why it stopped funding the Carver League. One reason, though, may be that by the end of the 1980s the building was simply not being used nearly as much as it once was.
“You have to keep that 501(c)(3) paperwork up, and I think basically the organizational structure fell apart,” Sheppard says.
Asked whether United Way would today consider supporting a nonprofit Brice or others might set up to try to save the Carver League, Dreiling said that such a hypothetical organization could apply for funding, if it met United Way’s criteria.
“United Way funds specific programs within partner agencies that address education, health and financial stability,” Dreiling said in an email. “Partner agencies are eligible to apply for program funds on an annual basis.”
Another potential source of support for Brice’s museum idea that she has courted is PSU.
“I think it’s a great opportunity if we have the ability to save the Carver League, that it could bring additional value to the area of Pittsburg,” says PSU Assistant Vice President for Student Life - Senior Diversity Officer Deatrea Rose.
University officials are hesitant to commit to any level of direct funding of renovations to the Carver League, however, though Rose noted that Brice has been reaching out to alumni in an effort to come up with more ideas for how to save the building.
“I think we just need to wait and see what those ideas look like,” Rose says.
Sheppard, for his part, would like to see supporters of Brice’s plan pay off the back taxes and fees on the property without asking for forgiveness from the city or county.
“That will show some commitment,” Sheppard says. “Because it will take a lot more than just, you know, what we owe to the city, in reality. It’s a lot of money that needs to be raised, and so I think that if we can’t come up with this kind of starter money, then we can’t proceed with anything, because it’s going to take a lot of money to do.”
A lack of records of Black history in Kansas
Though Black students on PSU’s campus during the segregation era were able to rely on the Carver League for their social functions, they were not always able to rely on their college to provide them with a practical education.
Church recalls that her mother attended PSU — then known as Kansas State Teachers College — for one year. “And she wanted to major in accounting and bookkeeping and they told her that she could not, because she was Black, and that if anything she’d have to be a teacher,” Church says.
Despite giving Black students such limited options, in one of the cruel ironies of the desegregation period, those who did pursue the higher education paths available to them soon found themselves without professional employment prospects.
“What happened when they closed Douglass School? All these people had degrees, teaching degrees, and they could not get a job in Pittsburg, Kansas,” says Church. “They became maids and janitors with degrees. That’s all they could do, because nobody would hire them for a professional job.”
Years later, Church says, racism was still widespread enough in Pittsburg to motivate her to leave after finishing her own degree.
“I knew that after I graduated from college there was no way I’d get a professional job in Pittsburg,” she says, “and that was in 1969.”
In the years since the Carver League was most active, “things have changed to a certain degree,” Brice says. “They’ve gotten better,” she says, but people — both white and Black — have also gotten “more sophisticated” about hiding their prejudices.
“The same thing with me, I could be sitting here talking all nice and everything, and I could hate white people,” she says. “But that’s what I mean — and I don’t.”
There is little question that things have also gotten better for Black students at PSU since Brice and Church attended college there, and just because the university is reluctant to commit to funding renovations to the Carver League doesn’t mean it hasn’t been supportive in other ways.
In 2002, PSU students reportedly painted the building and replaced the linoleum and windows. More recently, Jim Otter, chair of PSU’s School of Construction, had his students survey the Carver League property last semester. The building definitely needs work, he says, “but it’s hard to tell how much of it’s just superficial and how much of it is actually structural.”
One idea that’s been suggested is moving the Carver League building, possibly to the grounds of the Crawford County Historical Museum. Otter says that idea is not realistic, though, because of the building’s concrete slab foundation.
“I have no idea what it would cost but it would probably be in the hundreds of thousands,” he says.
Otter also has no reliable estimate of what renovating the building at its current location would cost.
PSU construction students often assist with community projects, Otter says, and they could potentially do more to help with improvements at the Carver League, offsetting some of the labor costs of the renovation project. As is generally the case with community projects his students participate in, however, Otter says someone else would likely have to pay for the materials.
“It would have to be a community effort,” he says.
County Counselor Emerson similarly says he sees a joint approach involving multiple organizations, as Brice has suggested, as the most feasible way to preserve the building.
“I think it would have to be all the partners that she’s mentioned, so with Pitt State involved, however that looks,” Emerson says, “and even maybe some student organizations, with the city, and then with the county.”
Brice has also begun to look beyond the local community for support, and despite the hurdles she has faced in her effort to save the Carver League, there have recently been some promising developments on that front.
After filing preliminary paperwork with the Kansas Historical Society to see about getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places or Register of Historic Kansas Places, Brice heard back this month, and is set to meet with KHS representatives when they visit Pittsburg in late August.
Church, for her part, says she supports Brice’s idea of turning the Carver League building into a museum.
“You know why I think it would be worth it? Because there’s nothing in Pittsburg depicting Black history that I can think of at all,” she says. "Because there used to be a school, Douglass School, and they tore that down. So there’s nothing there in Pittsburg representing Black heritage at all that I can think of.”
As Brice continues her fight to reinvent the community center she remembers from her childhood, whether she will ultimately succeed remains an open question. If the building is demolished, though, it will not only be a personal setback for Brice, but a “total loss” for local history, she says, in a community where Black people’s contributions have not always received the recognition they deserved.
“We were here; we worked; my grandmother was a maid in whoever’s house,” Brice says. “You just don’t hear about Black people’s history. And Black people’s history is American history. It’s part of American history, just like everybody else.”