BALTIMORE — Seventy years ago, and about eight years after the death of its namesake, the Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center opened at 603 N. Eden Street in Baltimore.
Today, officials are preparing to celebrate that anniversary with a major announcement. On Saturday, November 17, 2017, the Dunbar Coalition in partnership with Change4Real Development Corporation Inc. and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the center as a historic landmark.
The dedication plans include an Open House and on the Sunday, November 18, organizers have scheduled a Harlem Night Cabaret and a worship service at Walters AME Church.
It was Webb himself who initiated the idea of a recreational center.
According to the book, “Musical Maryland: A History of Song and Performance From the Colonial Period to the Age of Radio” by David K. Hildebrand and Elizabeth M. Schaff, Webb never put Maryland behind him, returning again and again to play at community benefits in Baltimore and to perform at Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theatre and in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore.
Recalling his own childhood, Webb spoke of performing a series of benefits to establish a recreational center for young people in East Baltimore. He died in 1939, one year after the idea was hatched to construct the center, which residents of East Baltimore hoped would combat juvenile delinquency in the area by keeping young people occupied and off the streets.
Residents viewed the center as a venue to provide recreational activities and to inspire youth by commemorating Webb, an east Baltimore youth, who overcame a physical disability to become a renowned musician and drummer.
Dr. Ralph Young pursued the recreation development after the YMCA dropped the idea of opening a location in East Baltimore.
Young, Chairman of the Memorial Committee, approached the Baltimore City Council for money to develop the recreation center, which had an estimated price tag of $120,000.
The committee formed by advocates of the center held a benefit, which attracted Joe Louis, and radio and stage stars, who counted among Webb’s friends. The proceeds from the benefit show, a baseball game featuring the Elite Giants of the Negro Baseball League and a fashion show earned $10,000.
The city still failed to act and the money raised was invested in war bonds after the start of World War II.
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 Young appealed to the community and received donations from doctors, a women’s civic league, neighborhood and citizens clubs and a local church.
Eventually, the Recreation Committee would turn the property over to the city for operations.
In 2016, the Dunbar Coalition was formed in a move that spared the center from demolition and ultimately earning the historic landmark dedication.