To understand the ongoing debate over East Central Community Center’s future name, look to its past.
The effort to rename the East Central Community Center after the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., has prompted consideration of the neighborhood’s complex racial history, more recent controversy over the community center’s leadership, and the symbolic weight of having a building named after a black leader in an overwhelmingly white city.
It’s raised concerns that a new title would erase the history of the center’s founding, an effort brought to fruition in part by members of the black community. The proposal has also revealed a generational divide in East Central civic leadership.
The City Council is slated to vote on the proposal on Monday. It was scheduled to take the issue up in January, but delayed the vote to allow more time for further consideration. Council members signaled this week that they have an eye toward compromise, but it remains unclear what shape that may take.
Initially conceived by the League of Women for Community Action – known informally in the neighborhood as “the ladies” – the East Central Community Center opened in 1979 after a laborious five years of planning and fundraising. It was the first community center to open in Spokane, and neighborhoods in West Central and northeast Spokane rallied to create their own soon after.
“Black folks started that, in my mind. A lot of the mission that King was working on (was about) empowerment. They were able to come together and empower themselves to lobby the city to get that building,” said City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who upon her appointment this month became the first African American on the City Council since 2003.
One of those black leaders was Lee Wade. Now 92 years old, Wade opposes changing the name.
“We were a group of women who got together, rolled our sleeves up, and decided we were going to do something about the condition of all the people. We didn’t ask about religion, nationality, or anything else,” Wade recalled. “Do you live in the community? Do you live on this street? Do you want it paved?”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, a nonprofit that has provided social services in Spokane for more than 40 years, has operated the East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone St., since winning a city contract in 2017. The nonprofit has nearly completed its transition into its new home in East Central, but its name has not come with it.
To its executive director, Freda Gandy, the renaming isn’t about erasing the past. It’s about looking forward, both for the nonprofit she runs and the East Central neighborhood.
“They feel like we’re taking something away, but I feel like they’re taking away our identity,” Gandy said.
The history of the center is inextricably linked to the diverse community that surrounds it. In 1981, Melting Pot Productions produced a play in celebration of Black History Month that told the story of a young black man “imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit,” according to a Spokesman-Review article at the time. In 1982, Maya Angelou read poetry to a rapt audience of “more than 300 (people) of all ages and colors,” the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported.
Though it’s gone through several iterations of management in recent years, that tradition lives on. Today, it hosts an array of social services, including early childhood education programs, events for seniors and a food bank.
The arduous renaming process began last year when then-City Council President Ben Stuckart drafted a letter to then-Mayor David Condon proposing the building be renamed in honor of King. In a brief explanation, Stuckart noted that the neighborhood is home to several black churches and that the center is operated by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center.
That kickstarted the city’s procedure for changing the name of a publicly-owned building, which is ultimately decided by the City Council but first calls for robust community input and a public vetting process.
In June, the city posted an open survey online probed for community feedback. Out of 738 votes, 49% endorsed renaming the building after Martin Luther King Jr., while 32% supported keeping the name as is. The rest of the votes were cast for other options, which included Underhill; Liberty; Emmett Holmes, a former deputy county treasurer who helped found Calvary Baptist Church and the Bethel A.M.E. Church; Peter Barrow, who was born a slave but later moved to Spokane and founded Calvary Baptist Church; and Lydia Sims, the city’s former human resources director and first African American department manager in the City of Spokane.
The proposal sat on the council’s desk for months until Council President Breean Beggs recently revived it.
For Beggs, there are two simple questions at play. Should there be a public building in Spokane named after King? And, if so, does the building nominated for it make sense?
With the East Central Community Center renaming proposal, the answer to both questions is yes, Beggs said.
“This neighborhood has been a neighborhood that has been ground zero for racial struggles and racial empowerment,” Beggs said. “This was a neighborhood that was red lined back when redlining was the law.”
Redlining is the practice of denying a loan, mortgage or other services in a certain area based on the applicant’s race. As Jim Kershner wrote in The Spokesman-Review in 1997, Spokane was rife with racial segregation in the 20th century, including in ways that resulted in East Central’s relatively diverse demographic makeup. He pointed to a 1961 article in which Rev. J.C. Brooks of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church told the paper that “a black person looking for a house would be steered to the ‘area for Negroes,’” referring to East Central.
Carole Shook, vice president of the League of Women for Community Action, acknowledges that history but questions its relevance in the current debate.
“I think we’ve gotten past that. We’re continuing to move forward. People don’t think in those terms nowadays about redlining. I think that what the center has done, what the community has done, is to move past that era,” said Shook, who is African American.
Wade, a founder of the center, lamented how certain communities can be tied to a name like King’s.
“We had a black president of the United States. I think that’s an honor, but I don’t think that everything that comes after that should be named the ‘Obama’ this, the ‘Obama’ that,” Wade said.
Wade asked if the Northeast Community Center or the West Central Community Center would change its name to honor King.
“Then why should East Central and its people be considering (the name change)? If you took a poll in East Central, they would say no,” Wade said.
Shook recalled the unity and support from other neighborhoods in Spokane as East Central forged its own community center.
If the name is changed, “no matter how you try to retain it, I think that the history will go away,” Shook said. “Why change its identity? It’s been established, so why change it?”
To those who helped create the community center, the name represents “their legacy,” Wilkerson said.
“It may be generational. But for folks of color – and maybe others, (but) I’m just talking folks of color – that was like the first thing we did together as a community…At that time, East Central was the heart of the black community.”
Wilkerson has proposed a compromise to combine the names “so that both entities are acknowledged.”
That idea seemed to resonate with other council members during a briefing session this week, including Beggs, who floated the idea of amending the resolution to meld the two names.
But Gandy has no interest in the compromise, and worries that blending the two names together will only continue to cause confusion for her organization, which doesn’t plan to change its name anytime soon.
Lonnie Mitchell, the current pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church, said the debate over the center’s name was an opportunity to “promote and to advocate unity in our community.”
In a letter to the City Council, Mitchell supported the name change and warned that the community “spoke loud and clear.”
“If for some reason you can’t vote with the majority of the community, then perhaps the best thing for you is to recuse yourself,” Mitchell wrote.
While she considered the naming of a street after Martin Luther King Jr. an appropriate honor, Wade argued “there’s people that would not go if it’s named the MLK Center,” in part because “you associate it with being owned by black” people.
“It’s for all the people, East Central Community Center has no race, religion or whatever,” Wade said. “Naming the center Martin Luther King, it will do more harm than it will do good.”
The ongoing debate over the center’s name also has roots in a still-simmering battle over what organization should manage it.
In 2012, the city handed over operation of the community center to the East Central Community Organization.
Among other concerns about its ability to operate the center, some black residents had voiced concern that the black community was not welcomed by the community center’s new leadership. Following a fraught and contentious process, the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center won a three-year contract to operate the East Central Community Center in 2017.
Some in East Central view the battle over the building’s name as a proxy for the two-year old dispute over which organization should operate the community center.
Beggs said the renaming would be about honoring King, not as a signal to the building’s new operator that it would remain in charge in perpetuity. He recently tried to make his case to the East Sprague Business Association, which has opposed the renaming, but acknowledged his argument largely fell flat.
“They thought it was kind of a gift or a favor to the MLK organization. They favored the former organization and they felt like it was trying to solidify” the new operator’s role there, said Beggs, who was accused of bias in the selection process but noted he had initially supported the East Central Community Organization’s bid to stay on as operator.
Chris Venne, president of the East Central Community Organization’s board, said the organization has not taken a formal stance on the issue.
For Gandy, it is more than just a name on the building.
Renaming the community center will give the nonprofit a “sense of identity here in this building.” As the nonprofit seeks to finalize the move out of its old home on South Sherman Street and raise money for its future endeavors, having a unified name “will cut down on a lot of confusion.”
If volunteers and potential donors “feel like you’re unstable…I can’t bring in funding that’s needed,” Gandy said.
Not only will the Family Outreach Center lease out its old building, it fully intends to purchase the East Central Community Center from the city within the next decade. It already has poured funding and effort into expanding the programs at the center.
Gandy acknowledges that her nonprofit is not on a permanent contract with the city, but says “we’re doing our job” and “the city doesn’t have any reason not to renew it.”
John Bowen, who has lived across the street from the center for 15 years and is a regular presence there, supports changing the name. The management of the center has improved under the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, which has “bent over backwards to raise this community,” he said.
The new name would “speak for the whole neighborhood,” Bowen said, and every child in East Central could point to it and know that “what (King) aspired to is what they could aspire to.”
But as the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center has grand plans for the future, some are asking it to slow down.
“They’re challenged because MLK has only been in that building two years. And so then to come and have such a significant change in such a short period of time, again, people just don’t move that fast,” Wilkerson said.
There may be little consensus on the center’s name, but several council members have questioned the process, particularly its lack of inclusion of Gandy, who has yet to be invited to testify publicly on the matter.
“The process has been entirely screwed up from day one, it seems like,” said City Councilman Michael Cathcart.