By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,

The Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center, located in East Baltimore, is set for a $20 million redevelopment. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a loan guarantee of $12.4 million for the project and the center received $8 million in state bonds. 

The center’s renovation is part of Baltimore’s larger $30 million-Perkins Somerset Oldtown Transformation Plan. 

Construction on the facility is anticipated to begin by June 16, and the renovation will take two years.

“Recreation centers are community hubs, and this one, especially, has played such a role in people’s lives. It’s important to promote the history to future generations, so that they understand how important this center was,” said Kate Brower, design planner for BCRP.  “Because of the segregation and racism in Baltimore City at the time, there weren’t many facilities for African Americans to use. It’s really remarkable that the African-American community raised the money to open the first recreation center specifically for them.” 

Born in the Middle East neighborhood in 1905, William Henry “Chick” Webb was a renowned American jazz drummer known for his “swing” style. As a child, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which deformed his spine and resulted in limited use of his legs. 

Webb rose to fame in New York city in the 1930s, playing with Duke Ellington and Benny Carter. He also created his own band that included the queen of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. 

On his deathbed in 1939, the music artist expressed to his friend and physician, Dr. Ralph J. Young, that his wish was to create a recreation center for Black youth in East Baltimore. 

Young took it upon himself to carry out that dream and formed the Chick Webb Recreation Committee. 

“Although we talk of Chick Webb, who not only was a musician and bandleader but a philanthropist, we don’t talk much about Dr. Young. He carried on Chick Webb’s mission magnificently, and it was Dr. Young who actually put the first equipment in the center,” said Ronald Miles, president and CEO of the RJY Chick Webb Council. “The city of Baltimore said they couldn’t do anything, and YMCA said that they didn’t have the financial resources. That’s when they spearheaded a concert.” 

On Feb. 20, 1940, the recreation committee held a benefit concert to an audience of over 7,000 people to raise money for the center. Musical guests included Ella Fitzgerald, Duke and Mercer Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the Nicholas Brothers. 

The AFRO also played a pivotal role in raising funds for the center’s development by hosting a fashion show. 

The Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center opened in 1947, and in 1949, the city of Baltimore added a swimming pool. 

When the center was threatened with demolition in 2017, the Dunbar Coalition, of which Miles was a member, was formed to obtain historic designation for the Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center. 

After the historic designation was approved, Miles created the RJY Chick Webb Council, Inc. to advocate for the center’s redevelopment. 

“Chick Webb stated that he wanted to deter youth from juvenile delinquency and help them become good citizens. I am an example of that,” said Miles.

“At nine years old, I learned to swim at Chick Webb. I became a lifeguard, which helped me pay my way through school and take care of my family. I exemplify what he wanted.” 

The Chick Webb Memorial Center renovation will include an expansion of the pool deck, new ADA accessible locker rooms, a new gym building addition and a new entrance to connect the addition to the existing building. The current gym will be transformed into a fitness, dance and aerobics studio and weight room. 

The center will also become the first BCRP facility to have a recording studio, and it will include a permanent exhibition honoring Chick Webb’s legacy. 

“Chick Webb was a fantastic figure and inspiration himself,” said Brower. “The fact that he had a disability, and yet, he was so successful and driven to want to provide recreation for folks in his community is something we should promote and remember.”

Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.