Clearwater MLK Center History Series — Part One
Originally opened in 1974 by the city of Clearwater, the Clearwater Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood Center (MLK Center) offered a place for neighborhood members of all ages to commune, connect, learn, play, and celebrate. It’s located in the North Greenwood community at 1201 Douglas Ave.
In its height, the MLK Center provided homework rooms, table tennis, fashion shows, and teen dances where parents signed kids in and out. There were also weddings, showers, and other celebrations at the center.
Bryan Voliton, marketing expert and motivational speaker, remembers his early days at the MLK Center. Bryan grew up in North Greenwood and remembers the MLK Center as a lynchpin for the community. “We had a lot of our activities and extracurricular activities there,” Bryan recalled. The center was located right behind the old Curtis Fundamental Elementary school — the very school built over a Black graveyard which is now being excavated by the City of Clearwater.
The school bell would ring and we literally walked out the back door into the afterschool program. It was mostly Black youth from the neighborhood who spent their afternoons there. Bryan Voliton
Bryan also attended the summer day camp that ran at the Center for many years. “Camp Chaka was focused on a Black experience for the most part,” he recalled, sharing memories of visiting artists and speakers who came to the camp and offered music classes and Black history lessons.
“One man named Solomon made these cool instruments out of different things found in your garage — like a piccolo made out of a coconut on a rake,” he chuckled, recalling how after the demonstration, they would build the instruments themselves.
Bryan mentioned other community members — Miss Ruthie, who taught music, and Miss Laverne, who ran the afterschool program — who would take the children around the city to sing at retirement homes. During Camp Chaka’s regular days, children enjoyed swimming at the nearby (now decommissioned) city pool and went to baseball games when the Phillies played at the Jack Russell Stadium, which closed in 2003.
The MLK Center was the true “heart” of the community, providing homework rooms, pingpong and pool tables, fashion shows, and teen dances where parents signed their kids in and out. During weekday evenings the Center opened to the public. The Center is “a place where community members could just come in and ‘hang out,’” Bryan explained. Of course, that was after the children from the afterschool program had been picked up.
Funding and management for the MLK Center came from the City of Clearwater and the Juvenile Welfare Board for the afterschool programs. In more recent years, this funding was withdrawn to support newer venues. Today the MLK Center receives different types of funding including support from the Venture Philanthropy Fund at Pinellas Community Foundation.
Come Back Next Week for Part Two
Visit next week to read Part Two of the Clearwater MLK Center History Series that highlights the chronicles of the Clearwater Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood Center.