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Black Arts and Culture

History Comes Full Circle On 124-Yr. Hunton Legacy

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

In late October of 2019, the board of directors and supportive members of the community called a press conference to disclose the financial woes of the Hunton YMCA.

Hunton leaders admitted a shortfall in funding and an inability to secure enough support from donations and government sources to sustain itself to continue operating.

The conference issued a plea to the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) and the city of Norfolk for help in stabilizing the Hunton financially and assistance in finding a new location.

The NRHA and other organizations have said the Hunton’s longstanding policy of not charging fees to the poor children and adults who use its facilities is not a viable strategy.

Since the early 1960s, the Hunton has been independent of the local and the national YMCA organization.

Most of its clients live in the massive Tidewater Garden Public Housing Community and are too poor to pay the fees needed for the recreational and educational services they use.

Current board members have faith, they say, in the policy and have vowed not to change it.

Tidewater Gardens is part of the St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project. It will be the first, and eventually joined by Calvert Square and Young Terrace, to be razed to clear land for new mixed-income communities the city and NRHA have planned.

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NRHA has proposed to buy the Hunton building and the land it sits on for $1 million. But half of that would be used to pay for the services and maintenance NRHA has provided in recent years.

Board members and supporters have indicated the remainder of the money offered by the NRHA would not be enough to find a new home and sustain operations.

The property, according to the city, is worth some $4 million.

The NRHA proposal is based on the Imminent Domain law which permits a government entity to secure private property to benefit the public.

The NRHA says large portions of the St. Paul’s Project is flood-prone. If it can buy the land the Hunton sits on, it will build a flood-water retention pond.

Hunton leaders and supporters feel the historic institution is not being treated fairly. Joe Waldo, a Norfolk lawyer skilled at waging battles against cities and corporations using Imminent Domain, has joined the fight to help the Hunton and has provided financial assistance.

So has the Rotary Club, which recently helped the Y rebuild its public kitchen which prepares meals to feed many poor people.

The Hunton runs a day care center and provides after school recreational and other educational and support programs for youths funded by other nonpublic sources, its leaders say.

Leaders of the Y say despite their services to the neighboring communities, they have not received NRHA or city support to do so, compared to other public housing communities.

“The Hunton has historically been underfunded and unappreciated. Because we exist and serve a mostly poor community, it is hard to raise money from donations,” said Ulysses Turner, a businessman and one of the leaders of the effort to preserve the 124-year-old Hunton Y.

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Turner hosted the late October press conference. He promised to be one of the supportive community leaders to work to keep the Hunton viable.

“With the little funding we have secured, we have provided very vital services, and a location for children to thrive,” he told the GUIDE recently. “The city has failed to provide daycare and after school programs for the children living in the Tidewater Garden and nearby communities.”

“We would like for the NRHA to reconsider its amount of money it is offering for the valuable land the Hunton sits on,” said Turner. “They know what they are offering would not allow the Hunton to sustain itself. So, because of its historic standing and what we do as an organization, we would hope the city and NRHA would cooperate and help to make the Hunton YMCA whole and allow it to continue its mission.”

If one sifts through the New Journal and Guide digital archives, the financial stress and tension with the city have been a reoccurring theme in the history book of the nation’s oldest Black-controlled YMCA.

Over 40 years ago, in March of 1979, according to the GUIDE, the leaders of the Hunton YMCA announced the grand opening of the new and “independent ” Hunton Y on April 4.

The new facility located at the former Norfolk Recreation Center on 1139 Charlotte Street is where it currently exists.

It was one of few facilities in the Black community to hold social events, such as high school proms and club meetings, according to Councilperson Paul Riddick, who also attended that late October gathering attended by the press.

At a similar press gathering four decades ago, the Y’s President Alonzo Adams and his executive director A.D.

Dinkins announced proudly the $1 million organization which had been secured from the NRHA, the city, and various donations.

It was billed as the largest and oldest African-American-run Y on the East Coast.

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Its management team also made a plea for support to the community to sustain the Hunton Y.

The exodus from its previous location at that time was prompted by the city’s massive redevelopment project, which was targeting the city’s historic Black community surrounding the Church Street Business District.

Today it’s called the St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project.

At that time in 1960, the city was gearing up for its massive “Church Street East Urban Renewal Area Project.”

They wanted to secure the Hunton building and other parcels of land along Wood Street and sell them to the U.S. Government to build the massive mail distribution center we see now at the corner of Brambleton and Fenchurch.

Officially set to begin in 1962, The Renewal Project was designed to demolish many old buildings along Church Street where the Attucks Theater and the United Order of Tents headquarters remain today and redevelop the area that had at one time been an active Black business corridor.

The Hunton had been a part of the Central Y (now the YMCA of South Hampton Roads), since 1936. At that time, the Hunton was located on busy Church Street.

According to the GUIDE, the management team of the Y, with help from area church and civic leaders pitching in financially, was able to secure the property at 812 Wood Street in the late 40s for the Hunton.

The Hunton was a source of pride for the city’s Black Community, named for William A. Hunton, who worked to develop its religious and educational programs, in the 1880s. (See next week’s GUIDE.)

During its tenure as a member-unit of South Hampton Roads “Central YMCA” network, Hunton’s mostly Black leadership and adult members resented and pushed back at the tight control of the Central Administration.

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Also, during that tense marriage, Hunton was receiving a portion of its funding from it.

In a December 3,1960 edition of the GUIDE, the Hunton management team announced that it had negotiated a separation deal from the “Central YMCA” organization, which ran most of the units in South Hampton Roads.

That decision created an internal leadership battle.

While it announced its independence from the Central Y, the city and NRHA informed Hunton Y leaders that it had to find a new home.

This same scenario is playing out today, in the wake of the revelations of its current financial woes, including assistance to find a new location.

… To Be Continued

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