In 1922, six Newporters established a recreational center at Great Friends Meeting House to serve the unaddressed needs of the nearby Black community. What blossomed was a haven for the old and young alike.
“The Rec,” an affectionate moniker for the center coined by the local youth, was a space where anyone could go and participate in theater programs, talent shows, arts and crafts, cooking instruction, sewing classes or Boy and Girl Scout troops.
A move down the street, a name change and a century later, the entity now known as the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center still carries on that original mission, keeping a pulse on the needs of its North End neighbors and responding accordingly with programming and services.
“We always grew up with the idea that the Rec was the place to go and serve others in our community,” said longtime volunteer Joanna Somerville. “We were always involved with things.”
In its early days, the Rec found a compatible home at Great Friends Meeting House, which was built somewhat as a testament to religious freedom by the city’s Quaker population in 1699. The vast, open rooms where members of the church once sat in silent meditation, and the sprawling lawns where merchants and farmers were once allowed to set up shop, became fitting spaces for modern recreation, enjoyment and gathering. The center began hiring paid professional staff in 1945.
But there was an obvious need for renovations to the building. In fact, the nickname, the Rec, was not only a nod to the center’s function, but a cheeky play on words indicating the facility’s structural integrity and state of disrepair.
In the 1950s, a study from the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers found that the building was unsuitable for the programming coming out of it, and more staffing was recommended to adequately meet the needs of the community.
Somerville remembers the Rec playing a crucial role in her childhood and adolescence throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. She remembers a makeshift ice rink created weekly in the winter for the local children through the combination of firemen’s water hoses and a large, concrete square in the backyard. She remembers a long, stone slide. She remembers her grandmother and other parents from the neighborhood always being involved in the activities and volunteer efforts.
“There was always a lot of space there and a lot of us there to enjoy it,” she said.
The Rec continued to function out of Great Friends Meeting House through the ‘50s and early ‘60s, despite little financing and a small staff, who were all very aware of the need for a new base of operations.
Just down the street, on what was then known as West Broadway, was a space built in 1940 to house activities and programming, including USO shows, for Black members of the military visiting or living in Newport. With a segregated armed forces at the time, it was common for white servicemen to congregate and socialize in different places than their Black counterparts. This notion manifested locally through the USO building on West Broadway being reserved for military members of color, while the U.S. Navy YMCA in Washington Square, now known as McKinney Shelter, was a frequent hangout for white sailors and soldiers.
In 1967, the integration of the U.S. military created an opportunity for the Rec. The USO building became city property, was no longer needed and was sold off to a group of residents. That same year, after funding for a major renovation was provided by the Rhode Island Foundation, the group sold the building to the Newport Community Center to serve as the location of a new recreational facility.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the center was renamed in the racial justice leader’s honor. It was right around the same time that Somerville, inspired by her grandmother and the experiences she had as a child, began getting more involved with volunteer efforts at the Rec as a teenager.
“We would go out and ask people questions about where the needs were, and we’d invite people in to participate,” she said. “It was always meant to serve the neighborhood and find out what people needed.”
A lot of that work included analysis of the neighborhood, meaning knocking on doors and talking to people, providing activities for local seniors and giving the youth something to do.
“Just trying to keep them off the street and out of the court system,” said Somerville. “Everywhere the kids went, someone from the center was going to be there. We’d be there for activities, ball games, whatever. As long as there was a goal, we were helping and supporting them to meet that goal.
“We expected their best, and we knew people would fall down along the way,” she added.
As the years progressed, the work for Somerville included coming home to folks sitting on her doorstep, asking for information and resources. Luckily, she knew which direction to point.
When mistakes happened, Somerville and other volunteers found themselves driving to and from courthouses. Inevitable conversations went deep, and Somerville is reminded of a particular time she drove a young man from Newport by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections facility in Cranston and made him promise he’d never end up inside. Recently, she reunited with the man and was happy to hear he kept his word.
“Those are the kinds of things you drop on people and you don’t really think it means anything to them,” she said. “It does. They come back and tell me I did so much.”
In 1970, the MLK Community Center appointed its first Black chairman of the board in Ron Miller. And in 1978, while sitting among friends and ruminating on the impact the Rec had in their lives, Newport resident and former community center frequent Gwendolyn Pier suggested a reunion. A Rec reunion has played out annually ever since, and this year, after a pandemic-induced hiatus, the event returned to Great Friends Meeting House, the MLK Community Center and other local gathering spots with cookouts, trivia and, of course, recreational activities for all.
“It was just one of those things that gets mentioned,” said Veronica Mays, who has helped organize the reunions alongside her mother, Pauline, for two decades. “People picked up on it and they got it started. The Rec is still out there and doing good work.”
Large-scale growth and renovation have taken place at the space on Dr. Marcus Wheatland Boulevard where the community center is now housed, with the center being granted nonprofit status in 1984. It also now serves all six municipalities across Aquidneck Island.
The center’s current executive director, Heather Hole Strout, points to the facility’s food pantry expanding to include more culturally diverse offerings, youth and senior programming and increased need for assistance from the pandemic as signs that the facility is still meeting the needs of its clientele 100 years after its founding.
“It’s never up to staff to decide what is our next thing or what we will expand upon; it’s really about asking our clients what they want to see,” she said.
Somerville eventually retired to Virginia, where she keeps in touch with the center and those in the Newport community. Nowadays, when visiting home, Somerville can be found in a familiar place, assisting the organization with events and accessibility. Meanwhile, she is enjoying watching her great-grandchildren utilize the center in ways she did at a similar age, completing the circle. The interactions are familiar to Somerville and inspire her to remember the role of the MLK Community Center and its existence into the future.
“We’re still a family, we’re still a village,” she said. “You want to keep that spirit going.”
MLK Center Client Statistics Fiscal Year 2021-22
Individuals Served: 5,670
(Individuals Served in 2019: 2,848)
Families Served: 3,642
Individuals New to Center: 1,267
Families New to Center: 763
Thanksgiving Meals: 4,089
Holiday Food Pantry: 5,553
Community Meals: 3,600
Food 2 Friends: 60,438
Soup Programs: 28,800
Produce to the People: 122,724
Total Hunger Services: 657,240
(Total Hunger Services in 2019: 223,000)
Service Hours: 17,333
American Indian: 80 (2%)
Asian: 40 (1%)
Hispanic/Latino: 1,155 (29%)
Biracial: 514 (13%)
American: 522 (13%)
White/Caucasian: 1,584 (40%)
Other: 80 (2%)
Children 0-17: 1,195 (30%)
Adults 18-54: 1,633 (41%)
Seniors 55+: 1,155 (29%)
Female: 2,351 (59%)
Male: 1,633 (41%)
Newport: 2,868 (72%)
Middletown: 558 (14%)
Portsmouth: 199 (5%)
Other: 359 (9%)
The year is 1935 and the narrow streets of Newport have to worry about something new and exciting in the community —the automobile.
That’s right, it’s hard to imagine a time in history when automobiles were new to our everyday lives, but as we celebrate our centennial it’s important to make note of this time period.
The passage from our archives about our mission statement in 1935 states that our Center provides “A children’s museum, gymnasium, and playground where children are kept busy in useful ways and safe from risk of death by automobiles.”
Remember, the introduction of automobiles provided a new challenge in keeping our children safe.
Although automobile safety isn’t as much of a pressing concern in our community as it once was, we still take pride in providing our youth with a safe, inclusive place to spend time through our educational programming.
MLK Executive Directors
1967 Warren Weston
Dr. Rowena Stewart
1982 Marcia G. Farrar
1993 Elsie Yates Goodrum
1999 Amanda Frye Leinhos
2010 Marilyn Warren
2018 Heather Hole Strout