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In its second century, Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center continues its theme of serving, and honoring, diversity

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Photo: Randy Stewart
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Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center, with the Center's President, Mark Dixon.

One stop along the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail is a building that has a more than 100-year history of serving Springfield's Black community.

Mark Dixon, president of the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center on East Calhoun Street, says it was built around 1900. The imposing two-story brick house began as a private residence, he said.

“A couple of decades in, it was acquired by a newly formed organization called the Springfield Colored Hospital Association—although, to my knowledge, everything I've seen, there were no African American members of that organization," Dixon said. "Many of the names on that initial list are names that are recognized around town—names like Heers and Fairbanks, for example—were names of persons that were on that organizing list. And so it became then basically known as the Negro Clinic from that time on.”

In the1940s, it became a Black veterans’ convalescent home, according to Mark Dixon.

"And the organization renamed itself in the Springfield Colored Welfare Association. A little later in the 1960s, then it became, for a short period of time, the Calhoun Community Center. And then, very early 70s was when Mrs. Bartley came over and set it up as Kiddie Kove Daycare, which it remained for the next 30 years, almost," Dixon said.

Mark Dixon is referring to Roberta Bartley—who, with her sister, Olive Decatur, were both retired schoolteachers who wanted to continue working with children, especially children of their former students.

“They were not only teachers at Lincoln School, they were very active in the community, you know, March of Dimes and different kind of things like that," Dixon said.

"And then once the schools were desegregated, they found their way over into those classrooms as well, Mrs. Decatur being one of the first then to come over and teach white students, which she did in Jarrett and at Parkview also," Dixon said.

But their daycare center flourished after their retirement, Dixon said.

"Because they had students at that point—or former students, I should say—who had families of their own and were trying to pursue higher education and that kind of thing," Dixon said.

Bartley, with her love of children, opened a daycare, in part to continue serving local families.

"And that's where a lot of people know this building as Kiddie Kove. And that organization went defunct around 1999 or so. And so for the next few years, the building sat empty—and terrible things happen, you know, to vacant buildings,” Dixon said.

A nonprofit breathes new life in an old gem

Then in August, 2002, the Sherman Avenue Project Area Committee, a 501(c)(3) non-profit formed to address housing issues, wanted to do something to save the former Kiddie Kove house. Mark Dixon was asked to be on the committee, and nearly 20 years later, he’s still involved with the building as president of Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center, named after the schoolteacher sisters who operated the daycare for nearly three decades. The committee was awarded a half million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reclaim and revitalize the building.

Today: continuing a tradition of honoring diversity

So what is the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center today?

“We like to think of ourselves primarily as a hub for nonprofit activity and that kind of thing. Not so much as a direct services organization, although from time to time we get a little bit of that going on here as well. But primarily as a place where a lot of different nonprofits that don't really have a home, or [are] working out of a post office box or bedroom, have been able to come together for their board meetings, for planning meetings, for some of their programming and that kind of thing,” Dixon said.

In fact, two organizations have become what Mark Dixon calls “tenant partners” who rent office space in the building: ALAS (the Alliance for Leadership and Success), and Grupo Latinoamericano. Other groups that use the building include the Springfield Reunion Club, the committee for Celebrate Life and Unity in Our Community, the Springfield NAACP chapter, Ujima Language & Literacy, and the Lincoln Cemetery board.

The spirit of learning and understanding continues here today, Dixon says.

“For example, we did a workshop training here with the Department of Transportation as they were working in efforts to recruit more minority drivers with CDL [Commercial Drivers License] classification licenses.”

Mark Dixon’s vision for Bartley-Decatur Community Center is clear and unwavering.

“Although we're far beyond just that scope nowadays, our first and primary concern always is and continues to be the African American community. This building has served that community for 100 years now and continues to do so. We make no bones about the fact that that's our number one target community to serve," Dixon said.

You can learn more about the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail at www.africanamericanheritagetrailsgf.org

Randy is in his 43rd year at KSMU (45 if you count his student days!)--first as Music Director, later under the the title "Arts Producer."