'Precious memories were made on this lot': Group wants to rebuild Black community hub
Firefighter David Shelton regularly walks by a plot of vacant land near his home in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood and dreams about its potential.
The empty lot is all that remains of the Negro Community Centre (NCC), an institution that served as a hub for Montreal’s English-speaking Black community for around 70 years.
“I think it would be a real boost for the entire Black community of Montreal, to see the centre back on its feet, to have a carefully curated space dedicated to our stories,“ said Shelton.
Shelton is the president of a new group that incorporated last summer and is determined to rebuild the NCC for a new generation.
He envisions a modern, multifunctional community space that would include a museum dedicated to sharing the city’s rich Black history.
It’s not the first time a group has attempted to resurrect the community centre, but Shelton is confident, it’s the right moment in time for it to happen.
“This space is very precious to us,” he said. “We feel that our project is the most viable use of this of this land.”
A COMMUNITY HUB
Towards the end of the 1800s, Black men were moving to Montreal to work as porters, which led to a thriving Black community in the Little Burgundy area.
The NCC was formed in the 1920s and ran its programs out of the basement of Union United Church, located just outside of the Little Burgundy neighbourhood.
“It came about from the work of the women at Union United Church and The Colored Women’s Club,” said historian Dr. Dorothy Williams.
“Some women there were looking to create an institution that would help them in dealing with some of the issues that youth in the community were [facing].”
Williams says men were also involved, many of them porters and husbands of the women who founded the NCC.
“Of course [the men were] the signatories at that time because women were not considered real persons,” Williams said.
The NCC eventually moved into its final home on Coursol St., in a former church which it shared with other community groups until the mid-60s.
Williams grew up attending the NCC and says she remembers “running up and down the stairs and causing havoc.”
She says there was a dance studio where she learned tap and ballet, there was a library, music lessons, childcare, lunch and after-school programs, and multigenerational activities.
“It served the English-speaking Black population well when it was up and going, and at its height, it really defined what it was to be Black in Montreal,” she said.
Others who spent a lot of time at the NCC included jazz legend Oscar Peterson and his sister, well-known piano teacher Daisy Peterson Sweeney, as well as another musical icon from the neighbourhood, Oliver Jones.
It also offered rooms for groups to meet and organize.
“It was an incubator, it launched a lot of organizations,” said Williams. “It was a hub for real community growth.”
Black Montrealers would also come to the centre from other neighbourhoods, Williams recalls, attracted by the programs the NCC offered. Some even drove their families there on weekends from the South Shore.
But those areas eventually got their own Black community associations, and the centre had to rely more and more on the small population living in Little Burgundy.
The neighbourhood itself eventually shrunk, when many homes were expropriated and destroyed to build the Ville Marie Expressway in the 60s. It pushed many Black families to other parts of the city.
The NCC ended up struggling financially, and it eventually closed in the 1990s.
While there were attempts to reopen the centre, but the building fell into disrepair. At one point, an exterior wall of the building collapsed, and in 2014 the building was demolished.
Shelton says the loss of the NCC has left a void in the community that was never filled.
“Many of those programs are still desperately needed now,” he said. “The after-school programs, community support, support for various segments of our community, our entrepreneurs, our seniors, our youth”
He admits bringing the community centre back to life, won’t be easy. The group is ramping up efforts to raise funds through events as well as their website revivencc.org.
Shelton says they’re also negotiating with the landowner in the hopes that one day they’ll be able to purchase the vacant lot where the NCC once stood.
“So many precious memories were made on this lot and it would be wonderful to have new days like those.”
For Williams, it’s a space that is sorely missed.
“It was home for many, many people no matter where you were in Montreal -- no matter where you lived, where you came from -- that was home," she said.
"I think that's what people miss today is that sense of belonging, the sense of being centred in a space that you could call your own. And that's what the NCC represented to many Black families in Montreal.”