As part of the land use planning process for the Innovation District, the planning firm Perkins + Will recently held stakeholder meetings for employees and residents in and near the district. As part of this community engagement process, participants identified several physical, social and historical assets they would like to see preserved and celebrated, many significant to Oklahoma City’s black history.
One of the most noted was the Jewel Theater at 904 NE Fourth St. The theater was built in 1931 by Percy and Hathyel James and named after their daughter, Jewel. According to the theater’s website, it was the “heart of entertainment for the black community.” The theater wasn’t segregated like many of the other places at the time, so blacks could watch the latest movies, concerts and plays without sitting in an assigned section. The Jewel Theater closed in the late 1970s and has remained vacant since, although there are renovation efforts underway.
Participants also frequently mentioned the Henrietta B. Foster Center. Oklahoma City was once the only major metropolitan area in the Southwest that did not have a branch of the YMCA that served the African-American community. In 1951, city leaders dedicated the YMCA building at 614 NE Fourth St. In 1986, the building was renovated to serve as a recreation center and offices for seven organizations working in the area.
Henrietta Foster, a retired school librarian, area resident and founder of the Harrison-Walnut Neighborhood Association, led the efforts to save the building. The project took nearly seven years to complete and was the cooperative effort of many residential, nonprofit and civic groups. Foster died before the project was completed and the Oklahoma City Council renamed the building in her honor.
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