During segregation, Yuma Street was a space for the Black community to thrive and grow in Manhattan. Along Yuma Street sits the Fredrick Douglass Recreation Complex, a facility that has played a huge role for Black history in Kansas.
Dave Baker, Douglass Center director and former K-State baseball head coach, became the first Black head baseball coach at a Big 8 Conference institution in 1978.
“There’s just some very rich history of this building in this community,” Baker said. “Yuma Street was the main street for African Americans or colored people back in those days, and I was born and raised here, so this is home to me.”
Built in 1942, the community center started as United Service Organization (USO) and served as a recreational spot for Black soldiers. During this time, the U.S. military was still segregated and Fort Riley soldiers used the Douglass Center. The center became a hub for the Black community in Manhattan.
“[The Douglass Center was] kind of the focal point, the main place for that community,” Baker said. “The Black soldiers came here on Friday nights from Fort Riley because, like I said, it was used always for recreation, and this was the Black community.”
In 1942, and in the years to follow, the center hosted several prominent individuals.
“Jackie Robinson, the great baseball player, Joe Louis, a great boxer … both were in this facility because they were soldiers at Fort Riley. Lena Horne, who’s a famous singer, performed on this stage,” Baker said.
Diving further into the rich history of Manhattan, visitors can learn more about Minnie Howell Champe — the first African American to graduate from Kansas State in 1901 — in the Riley County Historical Museum.
Champe held the position of Douglass Center director throughout the 1940s. She also served on the director’s board of the Douglass Center and the League of Women Voters. She is referred to as one out of the six women to help shape Riley County.
The Douglass school, built in 1903 and located across from the community center, holds importance in Black history as another hub for the Black community, similar to the center.
The school was opened the following year on Jan. 4, 1904, and was the first separate school for African Americans with 60 students in attendance. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka supreme court case, segregated schools were not legal, and the Douglass school was closed in 1962. The building now serves as the Douglass Center Annex, a place for mentoring, meetings and more. More information about the school’s history is available at Riley County Historical Museum.
Since coming back to Manhattan and becoming the director of the center, Baker said his goal is preserving the history of Yuma Street and the surrounding area.
“So right now we have the Douglass Center, this school across the street which is an annex to this building because it closed in 1962. … We have Pilgrim Baptist Church, which is right across the street, which was the main Black church here back then,” Baker said, “and so this whole Southeast quarter of Manhattan was African American once upon a time. Of course, time has changed, but you still can preserve things to preserve that history, and that’s kind of what I’ve been able to work at and do here.”
More information on the Douglass Center, Yuma Street and other places of historical significance are available online through the Riley County website.