Historic Negro Community Centre given new life at Concordia archives

The physical building may have been demolished in 2014, but the memories and mementos from the Negro Community Centre have a new home in Concordia's University archives.

The centre, which was founded in 1927, was 'a vital hub' for Black Montrealers for decades

Maureen Cant, left and Désirée Rochat are both part of the Concordia team that helped bring the Negro Community Centre archives to light. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

For decades, the 19th century stone building on a quiet Little Burgundy street bustled with the sounds of basketball games, dance lessons, and, sometimes, even Oscar Peterson at the piano.

Though the Negro Community Centre on Coursol was finally demolished nearly three years ago, a new archive at Concordia University is aiming to keep those memories from Montreal's Black community alive.

More than 100 boxes of material had been tucked away deep in Concordia's archives since the mid-90s, several years after the community centre was closed. But for years, they sat mostly untouched, until 2013, when the NCC officially donated the records to the Concordia library.

Now, in time for the NCC's 90th anniversary, the materials have been carefully sorted and catalogued and the archive will officially be open to the public.

Just in time for the NCC's 90th anniversary, the materials have been carefully sorted and catalogued and the archive will officially be open to the public. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)
"One of the reasons why you could have people like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones come out of the neighbourhood is that you had a real commitment to the youth who lived here," said Désirée Rochat, community educator and a research assistant for the project.

Concordia history students pored over photos and documents in the archives to research specific aspects of the centre, such as its youth programs or its political activism.

"The fight against Apartheid, connections with the Civil Rights movement, or other social justice movements," said Rochat. "It's interesting because it's a very local history, but with international connections."

Wall collapse

The archives harken back to brighter, more vibrant times for the centre.

The boarded-up community centre building had been deteriorated for years when, in April 2014, a large section of the stone facade collapsed.
A wall of the old Negro Community Centre on Coursol Street in Little Burgundy collapsed in April 2014. (CBC)

The organization that owned the building filed for bankruptcy protection and the building was sold and demolished later that year.

Not all of the centre's treasures were salvaged.

Maureen Cant, a Concordia history student who researched the community centre's library says most of the library books, which focused on black history & literature, were lost.

"Stanley Clike, the former executive director, he was kind of passionate about the library," she said. "His philosophy was about informing the black Community about their own culture…to develop self-esteem, self confidence."

Selections from the archives will be on display Tuesday, April 4 at the Universal Negro Improvement Association Liberty Hall. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)
If there's a silver lining, it's that since the collapse, more material has been donated to the archives, according to Steven High, the Concordia professor behind the project.

High hopes that members of the community will also contribute some of their own mementos from their time at the community centre.