Photograph of youth engaged in various leisurely activities in the lounge of the Southside Community Center in the late afternoon of March 1,1939.
November 9-10 
Southside Community Center, 305 S. Plain Street
Ithaca, NY 14850

The History Center in Tompkins County and the Southside Community Center are hosting a two day community forum focused on the African American community in Ithaca. An historical perspective will serve to provide a foundation for dialogues on current issues and topics.

A key premise is that knowledge and engagement comes from situating people in time and place and integrating social and cultural history with the built environment. The African-American community has become more dispersed over the past few decades while key long-term institutions continue to be forces binding the community. Forum components will include a Southside neighborhood assessment; collection of archival material; an overview of the history of African-American settlement in Tompkins County; virtual Wheat Street tour; discussion on current topics; art, food, dance and theatre.

The Southside Community Center’s legacy dates back to the work and ideals of the Francis Harper Women’s Club, a group of Black women in the Ithaca community in the 1920s. Learn more:

Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood has an African­American heritage that dates back 180 years. From the founding of the St. James AME Zion Church in 1833, to the Underground Railroad, to the construction of the Southside Community Center in 1938, the Southside was “the place to be.”

Strong Beginnings

March, 1927: The Francis Harper Women’s Club organized the Serv-Us League to serve the residents of the Southside. Mrs. Vera Irvin was then president and they raised $220.00 for the Hope Chest as a nucleus fund for this organization. The organization was to be non-sectarian and non-partisan, for the “uplift” of every individual.

The First 7 years

The vision behind the Southside Community Center was founded on the values and ideals of the Frances Harper Women’s Club, a group of Black women who were concerned for the unmet needs of their community. In its early years, the club operated out of a rented home, located at 221 South Plain Street.

They eventually purchased the house that formerly stood at 305 South Plain Street, known as the Southside House. In 1927 the Frances Harper Women’s Club reorganized as the Serv-Us League, headed by Mrs. Vera Irvin and Mrs. Jessie Cooper.

Finding a Home

The Southside House was destroyed by the flood of 1935. Community members, local business leaders, and the Federal Work Progress Administration under Franklin D. Roosevelt collaborated to build the current Southside Community Center in 1938, which was dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Building a Legacy

The construction of the Southside Community Center was an amazing addition to the rich African­-American heritage of the Southside neighborhood that dates back 180 years. In 1833 the St. James AME Zion Church was founded, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad along with homes on the Southside.

The center offered after-school programs, sports, health and employment services, making Southside “the place to be.” Today, the Center continues to serve Southside residents.



This program was funded in part by a Humanities New York Action Grant ( 

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