The History Behind New Bethlehem Community Center
The history of the Bethlehem Center actually began in 1911 when Miss Mary DeBardeleben, a young Methodist deaconess from Alabama, was appointed by the Women's Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to begin a social settlement for African Americans in Augusta, Georgia. This was the first effort of its kinds directed toward African Americans to be promoted by the Council. Augusta was selected as the location for the first settlement because the Methodist Church already had an institution in Augusta (Paine College) and the Missionary Council was contributing funds to it as part of its support for work with Southern African Americans.
In 1912, Miss DeBardeleben received one thousand dollars from the North Georgia Conference for the project and was able to rent an abandoned beer saloon on Campbell and Florence Streets to house the first program activities. The Center was called "Galloway Hall". The activities consisted of a kindergarten, Girl's Club, Boy's Club, Mother's Club, and a Sunday school for younger children. The Center opened three partially equipped small playgrounds and organized a branch of the National Urban League.
In 1913, at the meeting of the Women's Missionary Council, the name "Galloway Hall" was changed to "Bethlehem House", a name that would apply to all future African American Community Centers sponsored by the Council. In 1916, the Center purchased the property at 1404 Brown Street and this became the home of the Bethlehem Community Center for the next fourteen years. The program was expanded to meet the growing needs of the community it served, and before very long it became obvious that the available facilities were inadequate. In 1928, the Women's Missionary Council with an initial investment of approximately seventy-five thousand dollars was able to erect buildings on Conklin Avenue where services continue to be provided to date.
In January 1930, the new facility was opened with club rooms for boys and girls, a sewing room, library, kitchen, kindergarten space and equipment, and an apartment for workers. In the 1930s the Center's gym was used by Paine College and by all the African American schools in the area. The 1200 seat gymnasium was recognized as the only one of its kind in the greater Augusta area. There was also a small cottage that served as a Club House for older boys and as living quarters for the Boy's Worker program at the Center. The Center purchased additional land for play space, provided the first supervised playground for African American children in the Augusta area, established Augusta's first Vacation Bible School and started a sewing clinic for girls.
As the Center's fourth decade approached, it served as a model for many of the newer Bethlehem Houses established throughout the South. It was widely recognized as the focal point for social, cultural, recreational and educational activities throughout the entire African American community. Local historians have commented that prior to integration the Center was the only location in the city that served the needs of the entire African American community. In 1952, the Center was accepted for membership in the National Federation of Settlement and Neighborhood Houses. In 1953, it was accepted as an agency of the Augusta Community Chest (currently United Way) with an initial allocation of $3500. Other programs established during these years included: weaving class, well baby clinics, additional playground services, athletic programs, expanded kindergarten programs, Brownies, expanded Golden Age programs and services, camping, game rooms and piano lessons. This period saw the beginning of the soon to be famous Annual Goodwill Christmas Program with representatives from many of the churches (both white and black) in the Augusta area. The summer Head Start program began in 1965 and two summers later, the Feed-A-Kid program was established. Somewhat later, the Center welcomed Vista and other volunteers from the area who setup up tutorial programs.
The Center's sixth decade brought a new Executive Director with skills in networking, identifying resources and gaining support needed to grow and fulfill its mission. The Center established a Comprehensive Child Development project in 1972. The program provided extensive day care, medical and social services to ninety children of low income families. Enrollment in the Center's programs increased along with the emergence of new activities the next year. With support from the CSRA Planning and Development Commission, the Center offered a Comprehensive Nutrition program, providing senior citizens a noon day meal and other social supportive services.
The 1970s were also a time of physical expansion and growth. In 1975, the Center received a grant from the Women's Division Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church to refurbish the buildings. The main building was bricked and equipped with fire sprinklers. Always needing space, the Center applied for grants to build a 5,000 sqft Community Building. The National Division of the Board of Global Ministries pledged the $5,000 needed to buy the land for the proposed new building. In 1976, the Center received word that more than $115,000 would be made available from the United States Department of Commerce for the construction of the new building. In September 1976, the mayor of Augusta proclaimed Bethlehem Community Center Day to coincide with the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new facility. The new building was dedicated on April 18, 1977.
During this period and into the 1990s the BCC was sponsored by the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. It also received support from the Augusta District of the North Georgia Conference, local churches, and United Way. In addition, the Center maintained cooperative relationships with twenty-five social service agencies in the CSRA, including the neighborhood Youth Corps, WIN program, and the Georgia Department of Labor. Child Development and Senior Citizens programs remained an integral part of the Center's program with the Child Development portion representing the bulk of the Center's annual budget.
Moving into the 1990s and early 2000s, the Center's programs continued to be designed to serve the needs of the community. As was the case for most of its history, the Center was governed by a Board of Directors made up of an equal number of representatives from the area United Methodist churches, residents of the neighborhood, representatives of the community-at-large and ex-officio members. The staff consisted of an Executive Director, social and case workers, and other support personnel. The Center continued to be served by students (interns and volunteers) from Augusta College (now Augusta University), Paine College, Georgia State University and the University of Georgia.
Since 2008 the United Methodist Women of New York, UMW North Georgia Conference, UMW Augusta District, the NBCC professional staff members and volunteers from area churches and schools, have taken giant steps toward the revitalization and actualization of a New Bethlehem Community Center. With the help of many, we continue to be an extension of God's ministry and to improve the quality of life.