A few blocks west of the Johns Hopkins Hospital stands a large gray building with red doors. Over 70 years ago, those doors opened the Chick Webb Recreation Center to the community. In 2017, a community group rescued the building from demolition and got it declared as a historical landmark. Now plans are underway for major renovation—hopefully to include a performance space where Baltimore’s jazz history can be carried on.
Located at 623 North Eden Street, the recreation center is named for Baltimore’s legendary drummer, William Henry “Chick” Webb, known as King Jazz Drummer, but nicknamed “Chick” because of his short stature. Frank J. Graziano, jazz historian, wrote that Webb was “dwarfed by tuberculosis of the spine since birth; he had a head that was too big for his body, a grin that was too big for his face, and a soul that wasn’t content merely sitting between his broad shoulders, but had to make itself known in fiery, flailing, precise bursts of his arms.”
It was Webb’s dream to establish a facility to help the troubled youth of his Oldtown community in East Baltimore, where he was born and raised. He and the residents of the community hoped that such a center would help to combat the juvenile delinquency in the area. However, Webb died in 1939, one year after the conception of the idea. On his deathbed he urged his physician, Dr. Ralph Young, to carry out his vision. Dr. Young, faithful to his friend’s wishes, spearheaded an effort to raise money for the endeavor, starting with his own contribution of $5,000.
Webb was a beloved figure among high-profile jazz musicians of the day, and they put together a fund-raiser concert on Feb. 10, 1940 at Baltimore’s 5th Regiment Armory. Emcee’d by heavy-weight boxing champion Joe Louis, the concert featured 50 African American entertainers, including big-name jazz stars such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald (who led Chick Webb’s band), and the Ink Spots.. Other important headliners included Louis Armstrong and Claud Hopkins, the Nicholas Brothers, and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. These are huge personalities. Almost 7500 people attended. Two major community fundraising efforts were the fashion show sponsored by the Afro American Newspaper and the exhibition baseball game with the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Champions of the Negro Baseball League. These community fundraising efforts and the benefit concert garnered a total of $10,000.
The community appeal to the City and the YMCA failed to materialize as they both declined assistance at the inception. This led Dr. Young on an eight-year journey to realize Webb’s dream. After the start of World War II, the funds were invested in war bonds. Once the war ended, the recreation committee resumed its mission and purchased an old icehouse at 603 N. Eden to establish the center. The city kicked in $75,000, approximately half of the estimated cost for construction, and Dr. Young’s appeals to the community were rewarded by donations from doctors, a women’s civic league, neighborhood and citizens club, and a local church.
The building was designed by Baltimore architect Frederic A. Fletcher and is an excellent example of the Art Moderne style. The first phase of the project was dedicated in November of 1947. It took another few years and much effort by Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro to secure enough funding to complete a swimming facility, which was much needed as only one other city pool, in Druid Hill Park, was available to African Americans in segregated Baltimore. The pool was completed in 1949 and named after Dr. Ralph Young. Then the Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center was the “largest and most elaborate” community center for African Americans in Baltimore–due largely to the fundraising, planning, and development by the local citizens.
The pool was constructed to accommodate the Negro community and the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, located across the street from the Center. The City’s public swimming for Negroes, Pool #2 in Druid Hill Park, was built in 1921 and had to accommodate the entire Negro population in Baltimore. The pool was 105 feet long and 100 feet wide –only half the size of the Whites-only pool. Negroes were not allowed public swimming at Roosevelt, Clifton, Riverside, Patterson, Gwynn Falls and Druid Hill Pool #1. These pools were only desegregated in 1956. Thus, the Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center’s pool is an historically significant component of the Center along with its construction by renowned African American entertainers and the Black community.
Eventually, the Recreation Committee would turn the property over to the city for operations. Over the decades, the Recreation Center served multiple generations of Baltimoreans in that community, especially but not limited to African Americans. There were swimming lessons, classes, after-school activities, summer camps, carnivals, and a multitude of award-winning sports teams.
Despite its long history of serving the community, by 2016, the building had reached the point where it was considered for demolition. However, the Dunbar Coalition (long-time East Baltimore residents and Dunbar High School graduates) was able to fend off the demolition and have the center designated as a local historic landmark in 2017. And now as the Center is an integral component of the Perkins/Somerset/Oldtown Transformation Project, the Department of Recreation and Parks is working with community stakeholders to improve and expand the Historic Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center.
The RJY Chick Webb Council, Inc. a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was established in May 2019. Ron Miles, former chair of the Dunbar Coalitions historic committee, is one of three founders and serves as the CEO and President. The organization advocates both locally and nationally for the preservation and improvement of the Center. Their vision is to have it recognized as an African American accomplishment where nationally renowned African Americans entertainers labored to purchase the land and to build the Center.
The group is pressuring Baltimore Rec. and Parks to prioritize certain uses that they believe will best serve the community, which has been aging since the facility was first built. They favor space for cultural events and displays that reflect the founders and for creative activities for the arts. Among the uses they propose are a multi-purpose center which would include a performance space. One component of the design will involve a mural on an outside wall as well as exhibits inside the building that will relate to the history of the building as well as Chick Webb and the community. Along with the RJY Council, The Baltimore Jazz Alliance is participating in a working group with the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks. The plans were slated for completion in February 2021.
Across the city, in Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods such as the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, the Station North Arts District, and the Bromo Arts District, efforts are being made to keep the arts and jazz alive. Let’s hope that the new renovations at the Chick Webb Recreation Center will become part of the scene.
For more information, contact Ron Miles at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit https://rjy-chick-webb-council-inc.constantcontactsites.com/
Ron Miles has posted a Change.Org petition to email@example.com, which reads:
Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center located in Baltimore, Maryland in 1947 was built with fund raising of African American entertainers and black benevolent groups for Negro youth after an appeal to the City of Baltimore and the YMCA ‘s inability to fund a youth center for Negro Youth. As a death wish of William”Chick” Webb to provide a Center, Dr. Ralph Jonathan Young” organized a Recreation Committee to raise the funds to acquire land and construct the Center. Located in a transformational community, we wish for the center to have a competitive aquatics and wellness center to accommodate current residents and the projected new residents, a health, wellness and recreational center; and space for community meetings and entertainment to include recognition of the fundraising artist: Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Ink Spots, Nicolas Brothers, Duke and Mercer Ellington, Jackie “ Moms” Mabley and others. https://www.change.org/p/kate-brower-baltimorecity-gov-chick-webb-memorial-recreation-center-s-improvement-for-an-aquatics-center?use_react=false
Liz Fixsen is a jazz pianist and vocalist and long-time fan of jazz in Baltimore. She has written numerous articles for the BJA newsletter.