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Teen Center gets historic designation

Work has been underway to restore the old Alexander Teen Centerto the glory of days gone by for quite some time, but now it isgetting the historic nod nationally as well.

The teen center is a building behind Alexander Junior HighSchool that houses what was the only full-court gymnasium for blackstudents in southwest Mississippi for quite some time.

The building has been on site for more than 50 years, which isone of the qualifiers for the National Register of Historic Places,said historian Bill Gatlin. In addition, the building has to behistorically or architecturally significant, and it has to berepresentative of broad trends in history. The date the buildingwas erected is unknown.

“It’s associated with education, used as an adjunct to theschool activates at Alexander High School,” he said. “It’s alsoimportant in the context of ethnic history, because of the historyof segregated schools we have in Mississippi. I think this was animportant place.”

Now owned by CAFÉ A+ (Community Action Fostering EducationalActivities), the building is once again serving some of itsoriginal purposes. The court is once again open for basketball, andas things are fixed up, the center will be open for tutoring andother activities.

“The first phase is for the children to come in, for it to beused as a gym or a community center,” said CAFÉ A+ President StevenKeys. “We’re working toward after school use, trying to gettutoring set up for the children who want to come in.”

That’s the short term goal, Keys said. Long term, there’s plentyof work to be done.

“The long term is to complete the basement for classrooms and akitchen and conference area,” he said.

And the reason the building is important to Keys and hisorganization is twofold. First, there has been much discussion inthe community in regards to needing a teen center, he said. Butsecondly, like the Mississippi Department of Archives and History,he sees a historic significance to the building.

“Basically knowing the history of the building and how it cameabout, we wanted to preserve that,” he said. “Several years ago wedecided it was worth saving.”

Gatlin said the National Register is an honorary designation andputs no guidelines on how the building needs to be renovated orremodeled

“They don’t have to meet any criteria in redoing the building,”he said. “We don’t have much say in how they use it, though we hopethe changes are in line with the history of the building.”

Keys said the changes are not only in line with the history andpreserving the history, but will be aimed at passing history downas well.

“The African-American community used to pass our history downverbally, and we want to bring some of that back,” he said. “Thekids don’t know all about what went on there. We want them to knowour history and build from there. It’s hard to know where you’regoing if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

Keys said along with tutoring and other activities for thechildren, he hopes to offer classes on leadership, financial andfamily life issues. More than that, however, he wants the center tobe the beginning of a positive change in the community.

We want to use it now for what it was used for then, as acatalyst or a building block as far as what children can see,” hesaid. “We did a lot of research to get the historical nominationand we’ll display that in the building as well as bringing backpeople who remember to tell the story.”