Merlene Davis: Power of community breathes new life into Charles Young Center

The Charles Young Community Center was Lexington's first indoor community center for black residents.
The Charles Young Community Center was Lexington's first indoor community center for black residents. Herald-Leader file photo

In 1966, unbeknownst to her mother, Regina Berry danced her first slow dance with a boy at a social at the Charles Young Center.

Berry, then 15, wasn't supposed to be there with her friends. She was supposed to be at a sleepover.

When the doors of the center re-open Saturday, after being closed since 2008, Berry will have a legitimate reason to be there. She's the facility manager and a service provider at the center.

"It is a good feeling because we benefited from the activities at Charles Young," she said. "As young people, we were nurtured by the community there. Now, for me to continue that tradition, it is just wonderful."

Berry is executive director of the Center for Family and Community Services, an organization that was established in 1987 by local community leaders to develop academic programs for at-risk children. Aspects of that program — GED classes in English and Spanish, and supplemental services for parents and students — now will be available at the CYC.

Also, Community Action Council, the Department of Social Services at the Urban County Government, and Professional Life Coach will have offices in the center and offer job placement, mentoring/coaching for youth and adults, weight-loss support, youth social and educational activities, programs for seniors and referrals for social services.

Recreational activities including dance classes, martial arts, tutoring and organized sports programs will be decided by Berry.

"We will collaborate with other agencies to provide programs to help the community reach its full potential," she said.

Saturday will mark a positive end to a four-year journey that at one time had the center marked for possible demolition to make way for a road stretching from Midland Avenue to the new subdivision and school that replaced the Bluegrass Aspendale housing project.

The community protested that plan, and the connector road was shifted to allow the center to stand.

But as residents watched the renovation of the Lyric Theatre and the building of affordable homes, apartments and the William Wells Brown Elementary School, they also watched the deterioration of CYC, which sat vacant for years.

It soon became apparent that residents wanted the historical building brought back to life.

Built in the mid-1930s, the center was named for Mays Lick native Col. Charles Young, who was the third African-American to graduate from West Point, the first to attain the rank of colonel, and the highest-ranking black officer in the military at the time of his death in 1922. Young died in Africa, where he served as an attaché. His body was interred in Arlington National Cemetery a year later, and his eulogy was delivered by author and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois.

When it was built, CYC was the first indoor community center for blacks in this area. From then on, it became ingrained in the memories that black residents retained from their childhoods.

Over the summer, the building was renovated, and an advisory board was set up to oversee operations.

"It is hard to convey the feelings of not only me but other people," Berry said. "It is heartwarming to see it restored."

It is not often that a historical building is saved and restored, particularly if it has significance to blacks. CYC was an exception that should be acknowledged.

The building will be open for public tours from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, and some visitors can fondly recall their basketball glory days, their family reunions or that first dance. The grand re-opening ceremonies, featuring Mayor Jim Gray and council members, will start at 3 p.m.

"I want people to know that it is a place where they can come and feel comfortable and safe," Berry said. "And I want them to know they have a voice in the types of programs they would like to have implemented.

"Charles Young is back."