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Southside Community Center: "Where You Get to Be Black"

Nia Nunn works grouting the mosaic.
Nia Nunn was once a Girl Scout at the Southside Community Center. She now serves as the President of the Board of Directors for the community center. (Photo by Alyssa Curtis)

On Oct. 6, 1925, a group of 500 Ithacans, dressed in white hoods and white robes, marched to Circus Flat, the plot of land that now serves as the Ithaca Skate Park. A Klansman led the procession atop a white horse and a cross was burned that night.

Nine years later and less than a mile away from where the procession took place, the Frances Harper Woman’s Club founded the Southside Community Center. Located at the intersection of Plain St. and what is now Cleveland Ave., the building served as the only place African Americans in the area could access basic resources.

The women of the club created this space for black children such as Nia Nunn, to explore their identities.

“I was a little girl in Southside,” said Nunn, now an assistant professor of education at Ithaca College and the President of the center’s Board of Directors.

At the community center, Nunn said she was able to “experience normalizing black girlhood.” Years before Nunn grew up on Cleveland Ave., the street had a similar but slightly different purpose.

St. James AME Zion Church, located directly across from the house in which Nunn lived in, was once deemed an Underground Railroad station for slaves who were heading to Canada. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, well-known abolitionists, are both said to have visited the church.

The front of the St. James AME Zion Church which is located on Celeveland Avenue.
The St. James AME Zion Church was once designated as a station on the Underground Railroad. (Photo by Alyssa Curtis)

The black residents of Ithaca were drawn towards the area of Wheat St., Plain St., and Green St., to be amongst other blacks in a predominantly white city.

“[It] was once a predominantly black neighborhood, once a space where black folks were confined, but in addition to that, a space where black folks created a culture and significant community,” said Nunn.

Although the deep roots of the neighborhood have slightly shifted since its beginning, they can still be felt throughout the streets.

“Even today as the neighborhood has shifted in various ways like many predominantly black neighborhoods throughout the country… we’re still there though,” said Nunn. “There are many black families that still own their homes and have maintained their space in the neighborhood.”

Today, the community center still offers the resources it provided when the building was established, along with new ones, such as a food pantry, after school programs and pet clinics, said Nunn.

The community at Southside serves as a place of comfort for some of the children, such as Nyrece Cox, a seventh-grader who attends the program.

“I could be able to lean on someone when I need help,” she said.

The center also serves as a space for black excellence to be celebrated, said Nunn, just as it was when she attended Southside as a little girl.

“It was amazing how it gave us an opportunity to be with each other, to see each other but to honor our differences, even if there were external expectations of who we are,” said Nunn. “So our similarities and differences embedded in that experience were so significant. That was really empowering.”

Black excellence is being passed on to the new generation of students at Southside Community Center. A new initiative, the Black Girl Alchemist Project, teaches young African American girls to embrace their blackness – an identity of the cultural and physical differences that come with being black in America.

A piece of the mosaic that the girls at Southside are working on.
Girls at the Southside Community Center are creating a mosaic, part of the Black Girl Alchemist project. The project has taught the girls to love and accept themselves as people of color. (Photo by Alyssa Curtis).

As part of the project, the girls are working alongside college students and an artist to make a mosaic art piece. Throughout the process of creating these collages, they were able to be hands on — drawing, creating and mapping out what they wanted to depict on what will eventually be installed in the front entrance to the building.

“I got to learn more about myself because I would look at my mosaic and it was a picture of me and my face and more of my personality and how I wanted it. It wasn’t really how anyone else wanted it,” said Rosario Williams, an eighth grader who attends Southside.

The girls at the community center are learning about acceptance from women who were once in their exact position, illustrating that the center’s effects are lifelong and woven through generations.

“We used to say when we were little ‘Southside is where you get to be black’ and in my adulthood I realized that Southside is where we felt most human, where our individual and collective identities were honored,” said Nunn.

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