One of the most durable community institutions in the Williamsport area is The Center, formally known as the Bethune-Douglass Community Center at 600 Campbell St.
The Bethune-Douglass Community Center was founded on April 7, 1918. It first operated as a branch of the YWCA in a frame house at 429 Walnut St. It was named for two giants of African-American history, Mary McCleod Bethune and Frederick Douglass.
By November 1930, Bethune-Douglass had evolved into a community center for Williamsport’s African-American community.
Lack of space soon dogged the B-D Center and more space was needed and sought after.
In 1944 the Bethune-Douglass found the place it would call home for the next 35 years when the Williamsport School District made the former Emery School at 528 Park Ave. at the corner of Locust and Park Avenue available as a center.
According to a July 16, 1950 Grit article, the Bethune-Douglass Center offered a three-point program of recreation, welfare services and public relations to the African-American community of Williamsport. In 1950 there were 18 clubs for boys and girls that met regularly. Ten seasonal sports were played there, as well. Fraternal and charitable groups also made the B-D Center their home.
Bethune-Douglass received money from various sources, including the Lycoming Community Chest, later known as the Lycoming United Fund and later still, Lycoming United Way.
By the late 1970s, the B-D Center had outgrown its home on Park Avenue and a fund-raising campaign was initiated to build a new facility. On Dec. 3, 1977, ground was broken for the community center at 600 Campbell St. to be built at a cost of more than $780,000. More than 100 persons attended the formal opening of the new center on May 13, 1979; among those present was P.D. Mitchell, who served as director of the center for more than 30 years.
In the mid-1990s the B-D Center fell on some hard times as it ran into financial difficulties as well as allegations of financial misconduct. As part of the reorganization process the community center dropped the name “Bethune-Douglas,” and just became known as The Center, which was a colloquial name the building carried for years anyway.
The Center is well along the road to recovery now and is continuing the long-time commitment to diverse educational and recreational program. Rocky Boone is now The Center’s director and is doing his best, along with many others, to bring the benefits of The Center to the people of the area into the next millennium.
One figure bestrides the Bethune-Douglass story like a colossus and that was Percy David Mitchell better known as “P.D.”
Mitchell came to Williamsport in 1943 from North Carolina to work as director of Bethune-Douglass. He remained in that job for the next 33 years and during that time became one of most respected community figures in Williamsport. He was an innovator and his strong leadership and stewardship helped the B-D Center flourish.
Mitchell had an avid interest in sports, organizing and coaching many basketball, football and baseball teams. He also coached the first African-American men and women’s bowling teams in Lycoming County to be recognized by the American Bowling Congress.
He was intensely involved in many civic and fraternal organizations in the area. He was elected the first African-American state governor of the Kiwanis Club in Pennsylvania. He was honored by the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and received the “Grit’s” Meritorious Service Award in 1976.
Mitchell was always involved in the struggle for racial equality, and although younger African-Americans during the 1960s sometimes criticized him for not being more aggressive, Mitchell thought he could do more good by working quietly behind the scenes. He often succeeded with that strategy.
Mitchell and his wife, Amelia, had four children. He died on Nov. 10, 1981 a widely mourned and greatly missed figure. Carl A. Andrews, a former Williamsporter and national official with the Boys Club of America said of Mitchell, “He was a father to some and a brother to all.”
By Lou Hunsinger Jr., Williamsport Sun-Gazette