Historical Society officials visit local abandoned community center
PITTSBURG, Kan. — Donna Jackson Campbell Brice has long been working to save an abandoned segregation-era community center that served the local Black community, but she’s recently made more progress towards that goal than ever before, she says, as people have been contacting her to offer support and encouragement.
“I’ve been messing with this for a few years now, but this is the furthest I’ve gotten,” Brice said Thursday. “I’ve gotten a little bit further each time.”
Brice hopes to spark a community effort to renovate the long-disused Carver Social League building and turn it into a multicultural diversity center and museum.
After filing initial paperwork with the Kansas Historical Society earlier this month to see about getting the Carver League officially recognized for its historical significance, Brice was able to meet sooner than expected with KHS representatives — who had both good and bad news for her.
Katrina Ringler, Historic Preservation Office supervisor with the Kansas Historical Society, who visited Pittsburg on Thursday along with KHS Heritage Trust Fund Grant Coordinator Bethany Falvey, said it should not be a problem to get the Carver League building listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“We’ve received some information and done a little bit of research, and it seems like it has significant history, and it would be eligible for the National Register because of that history,” Ringler said.
Being listed in the National Register of Historic Places, however, is not a guarantee that the building will be saved from demolition if someone besides Brice or those who share her vision for it end up buying the property at the upcoming county tax sale.
“The protection is just in the process,” Ringler said. If the building is listed on the National Register, an application to the City of Pittsburg for a demolition permit would trigger a review by Ringler’s office.
“We of course would say we don’t recommend tearing this down, you know, that would be our comment,” she said. There would still be an appeal process, however, for the property owner who wanted to demolish the building.
"At that point, whoever that government entity is, they have to decide if there is a feasible and prudent alternative to the action. So for example, demolition — is there something else that can be done besides demolition? And if the community, the neighbors, the citizens come together, talk to their elected officials and say ‘Yeah, we have other ideas, we have other options,’ then hopefully that governmental entity will not allow the action,” Ringler said.
“99 percent of the time, though, they do allow the action, because there isn’t a feasible alternative, no one comes forward to advocate for the property, and so that’s why I’m saying it won’t necessarily stop an action, it’s all depending on who comes forward and who brings forward ideas.”
A date for the tax sale is still not finalized, but it is expected to be towards the end of September, Crawford County Counselor Jim Emerson said Friday.
Emerson noted, however, that even though the property is still in the name of the Carver League — a defunct nonprofit — rather than in Brice’s, she or anyone else who wants to could pay the money owed on the property prior to the tax sale, and it would be taken off the sale list.
“Anyone can walk in and pay the taxes,” Emerson said.
The money owed on the property is a bit more than $4,000 in back taxes to the county and a little more than $10,000 to the City of Pittsburg. Paying that off would not in itself give Brice control of the property, as it would still be technically owned by the defunct Carver League organization, but it would provide a short-term solution to prevent it from being demolished, and buy Brice and her supporters more time to try to get the property transferred into the name of a new nonprofit, or to otherwise resolve the issue.
To complete the process of nominating the Carver League for the National Register of Historic Places, Ringler said, someone will need to write up the history of the building to include with the application, which could be a good project for a Pittsburg State University history student.
Jim Otter, director of PSU’s School of Construction, also met with Brice and the historical society representatives this week. Otter had previously surveyed the outside of the building, but had not been inside prior to Thursday, when he, Brice, and Ringler and Falvey of the KHS, were able to look at the interior, as Brice recently got a key to the building.
“Once we knew we could actually access this and the city wasn’t going to be mad at us, the neighbors weren’t going to be mad at us, [we knew] that we would have to come in and look at this structurally and see how much settling has taken place,” Otter said.
The building’s foundation needs some work, he said, but it is not beyond repair, and the extent to which it has settled is not uncommon.
“In this area of the country, it happens all the time,” he said.
There is some damage to the building’s roof, Otter said, and he offered to have some students help to trim back trees that are growing into it and contributing to the damage.
“But inside I was surprised at how well the rafters are holding up,” Otter said. “They looked in pretty good shape.”
Otter said a half-day, four-hour work day just to do some initial cleanup of the property would be a good starting point to begin making improvements. He also suggested some additional sources of support that Brice could reach out to for help with the project. There are some alumni from the School of Construction who were also members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically Black fraternity, who have “been moderately successful just being out two to five years,” Otter said.
“So if we could get some good information out to people who might have a vested interest – PSU ties, Carver League ties and Black fraternity ties – I think that’s what you need to advocate for,” he told Brice. “Because over time you’re going to have to have somebody – other than you – that's the advocate.”
Brice said she agreed with Otter that a successful project to renovate the Carver League and reopen it as a diversity center and museum would need to have local, long-term support. Despite growing up in Pittsburg and wanting to see the building saved, Brice, who is 76, today lives in the Kansas City area and has said she has no plans to move back to Pittsburg.
“We do have some alumni that are fairly well off, you know,” she said. “They just don’t want to throw good money after bad money.”