The Dunbar Association, located in Syracuse, New York, is one of many African-American settlement houses throughout the country. The advent of the twentieth century brought notable changes to the black community of Syracuse. The population grew slowly as the opportunities for employment expanded. Black men and women were coming from the south to work in the munitions industry and other factories, meaning they were manufacturing weapons for the United States military.
However, as employment opportunities broadened in the city, discrimination grew more overt. It was in this setting, in 1918, that Jimmy LaGrin conceived the idea of providing recreational activities to the black youth of the community. LaGrin, who had been in jail himself, hoped this would give the younger generation a means of staying occupied without engaging in crime. LaGrin began his program under the auspices of the AME Zion Church and also became acquainted with black students attending Syracuse University who were united in a literary group who studied the African American poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The group was, appropriately named, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Society.
Using the settlement house model, LaGrin sought the financial aid of the white community by enlisting the help of three wealthy women: Ms. Lucia Knowles, Mrs. Frederick Hazard and her sister, Mrs. Walter Burlingame. The three women were all members of the city’s Commonwealth Club, an influential business group interested in service projects. They too, like the group at SU, were engrossed in the works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. With the financial backing of the Commonwealth Club, LaGrin was able to open his black community center and due to their help, called it Dunbar House.
Once incorporated in 1932, the Dunbar House became the Dunbar Association, Inc. or as it is more commonly known as today, the Dunbar Center. The Dunbar Center became the core of the 1930’s black community and over the course of 100 years it served in many different manners. First, the agency has served as one of Central New York’s access gateways for migrating blacks—hence why it was considered a settlement house. The agency has filled the gaps created by the color division in the city and has helped to maintain African American culture in the city by acting as a location for the black community’s social events like dances, youth groups, meetings and weddings. During World War II, the Dunbar Center was used as a training center and in the 1950’s, during a violent outbreak of polio, Dunbar was vital in helping to eradicate the poor health of the city. Throughout all of these different roles, Dunbar Center has always provided visibility for the black community residing in the white society—attempting to act as the voice for social change.
Dunbar has adapted its focus over time to include three distinct divisions: Community Services, Family Services and Youth Services. The programs offered help to strengthen families by helping to address service needs and gaps. For example, in the recent past, the center has offered computer labs, after-school homework help, summer camps, programs for senior citizens, emergency food pantries, family planning programs and adoption services. Today, the Dunbar Center’s focus has narrowed slightly to include a computer lab, after-school homework help, summer camps, teen activities, and senior programs. The Center also continues to serve its’ historical functions as it still acts as a meeting place for community events. Since Dunbar is a not for profit, it often is faced with financial challenges, but despite this drawback, we are proud to say Dunbar still strives to be a safe place for community members of all ages and walks of life to come together and share, learn and grow.