The new Mary C. Jenkins Community Center aims to be, like the one before it, a hub of the Rosenwald Community
Longtime Brevard residents remember the former vitality of the town's African-American community and the vital role played by the community center.
By Dan DeWitt
BREVARD — Edith Darity, standing on a grassy hill in west Brevard, looked down on two Carver Streets, the current, quiet version and the one she remembers from her childhood, when it served as the main drag of the busy Rosenwald Community.
“There were two or three stores and a cafe and a dance hall and a beauty parlor,” said Darity, 75. There were taxi stands, she added, and a pool hall and a barber shop. Working in her parents’ store, she scooped fresh ice cream from the local Biltmore Dairy. The Blue Diamond Cafe served hot dogs, hamburgers and mouth-watering pork chop dinners.
And at the center of this community was, well, a community center, a white, one-story building that opened in 1952 after a long campaign led by a young African-American school teacher, Mary B. Kilgore, and named for the property’s original landowner, Mary C. Jenkins. Mention of it prompted another list from Darity — of the activities and facilities the center offered:
A nursery and kindergarten, billiards and ping pong tables, a swimming pool, band competitions, talent and fashion shows. It hosted wedding receptions, graduation parties and more serious gatherings, such as meetings of the Transylvania Citizens Improvement Organization, which successfully sued for the integration of local schools.
It even provided young people with a daily example of industry, in the form of the men who gathered at dawn on the center’s steps.
“They would sit out front, clean and ready to work, with their jeans on and holding their lunch bags. The trucks would pull up and they would jump on and off they’d go,” she said. “We grew up with a lot of activities, and everybody had a purpose when they got up in the morning.”
That small hilltop where Darity stood, at the corner of Carver and Cashiers Valley Road, will be, she hopes, ground zero for the restoration of this vitality
It is both the site of the old community center — closed after years of neglect in 2006 and consumed by a controlled burn in 2019 — and its soon-to-be replacement.
Last month, the Brevard City Council voted to hire a contractor to build the new 4,000 square-foot community center for $1.8 million.
On Saturday at 11 a.m. at the center property, city leaders and community members will stage a groundbreaking ceremony that will also wrap in a celebration of Juneteenth emancipation holiday and the openings of the city’s nearby, newly built playground and basketball court at Silversteen Park.
This work is part of wider city neighborhood revitalization effort that includes the ongoing work at nearby Tannery Park, as well as the planned restoration of Norton Creek and extension of the city’s multi-use Estatoe Trail.
Facilities in the center will include a kitchen, a stage, an office and meeting rooms. And as it is being built, Darity and other members of the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center Board will decide how this space will be filled.
It will definitely offer a library and displays of local history. It will, like the old center, serve as a venue for a range of community gatherings. The tradition of education may be carried on by Rise & Shine Neighbors in Ministry, which runs its after-school reading and tutoring program at the nearby Bethel “A” Baptist Church, and whose leaders hope to use space at the center to accommodate a planned expansion, said Executive Director William Mills.
Mills, 62, attended kindergarten at the center in the early 1960s. In grade school he went there to swim and play table tennis. As a teenager, he remembers much-anticipated battles of bands and sock hops that drew friends from Hendersonville and Pisgah Forest.
The community center was still a vital local institution when Brevard City Council member Maurice Jones was growing up in the 1980s, he said.
“One of my main memories is of participating in a fashion show,” said Jones, who served as the chair of the city’s Mary C. Jenkins Community Center Task Force. “I was really excited about dressing up in all the different outfits and walking the stage.”
“When the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center was really in its prime, it was a hub,” he said. “A lot of people would go there and interact. You’d get to talking to somebody and find out, ‘Hey, we’re related. I didn’t know that.’ ”
The equality that Rosenwald residents fought for ironically had a hand in the decline of their business district and community center, said Darity, who graduated with the first fully integrated Brevard High School class in 1964.
As African Americans in Brevard felt increasingly welcome in downtown businesses, they were less likely to patronize establishments in Rosenwald. Chain restaurants and supermarkets also pulled away customers.
The closure of tanneries and factories eliminated stable jobs. It all led to fewer resources and less support for the community center.
Jones feels its absence every time he visits Rosenwald.
“When I was younger, it was more of a family setting, I could walk in the community and everybody I saw, I knew,” he said. “Now I can drive through and not recognize anybody.”
This is the reason Darity has been pushing to rebuild the community center for more than a decade. She sees it as rebuilding community.
“We want to get people together and give them hope and opportunity,” she said. “We want to make sure they feel like they belong.”