Remembering Salt Lake City's Nettie Gregory Center and the African American community that built it | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

February 01, 2023 News » Cover Story

Remembering Salt Lake City's Nettie Gregory Center and the African American community that built it 

A Safe Space

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  • Cover image courtesy of Duane Bourdeaux

Nestled beneath the din of southbound Interstate 15 at the edge of Poplar Grove—facing the Folsom Trail and old Union Pacific railroad lines—stands a monumental site of local African American history. Located at 742 W. South Temple, a simple and unassuming two-story structure of white brick and empty windows quietly waits in anticipation for its doors to open once more to Salt Lakers of every creed and color.

This was—and still is—the Nettie Gregory Center. Bookended by an apartment complex to one side and a car-towing lot to the other, the center and its grounds have seen better days. But its story remains evergreen within the landscape of not only the city's west side but of the entire state.

Nettie Gregory, seated second from left, and husband William, standing behind,  in a group photo at Trinity AME. - TONY LOVETT
  • Tony Lovett
  • Nettie Gregory, seated second from left, and husband William, standing behind, in a group photo at Trinity AME.

Completed in the days of racial segregation, the Nettie Gregory Center was the site of confluence for Salt Lake's African American community in their joys and celebrations as well as their sorrow and pain. While much has been lost to time and circumstance, historical research and interviews with those who once gathered within its walls keep alive the story of the center and the community it served.

"There is no other place like the Nettie Gregory Center," said Jeanetta Williams, current president of Salt Lake's NAACP chapter.

To understand the truth of what Williams contends, we will need to go back to the time during which the center got its start.

Dividing Lines
Since the days of fur traders like James P. Beckwourth, pioneer-owned slaves like Hark Wales, and freepersons like Jane Manning James, the African American community has been a constant—if numerically small—presence throughout Utah's history. With the exception of a temporary increase during World War II, Black residents accounted for only half of a percent of the state's population up through the 1960s.

Utah attracted little black migration—its residents of color lived and labored here as railroad workers, farmers, miners, waiters, cooks and domestic servants. When slavery was finally outlawed during Reconstruction, the Beehive State followed national attitudes and developed its own variation of Jim Crow conditions. And coupled with the Latter-day Saint population's sacralizing of racial attitudes held by some of its church leaders from before the Civil War, the times were rife with paradox.

"The color-line in Salt Lake City is not static," observed James B. Christensen in an unpublished 1948 thesis. "In some phases of the social life it bends, breaks and becomes nonexistent. In others, it remains rigid and unyielding."

African Americans could attend a ballgame, go on picnics and shop at a store, but they were also limited to the balconies of theaters and prevented from eating in restaurants. Municipal government facilities were open to them, but due to restrictive real estate clauses, their housing options were kept to substandard and dilapidated properties scattered around certain areas of the city. There was no formal segregation of public schools, but a single anti-miscegenation law from 1898 was stubbornly enforced right up until its repeal in 1963.

In such an environment, a person of color rarely knew where they stood with their neighbors or what public accommodations might be open to them until they encountered discrimination first-hand. Albert Fritz (1905-1989), Salt Lake's NAACP president from 1957 to 1965, remarked in a 1983 interview that civil rights progress has been difficult to measure in this state because Utahns generally "don't come across howling with their teeth bared."

Alberta Henry, center, poses with friends. - MARSHA BOYD
  • Marsha Boyd
  • Alberta Henry, center, poses with friends.

Alberta Henry (1920-2005), NAACP president from 1980 to 1992, opined in a separate interview that racial prejudice was no less a factor here than in the Deep South, albeit in sugar-coated form. "Everything that's done here is under the table," she said.

Coming Together
Even with the vagaries and vexations that swirled around race in Salt Lake throughout its history, the city's African American community often found a way to congregate and to create their amusement through house parties, social clubs like the Chesterfield and the Four Fives, fraternal lodges like the Elks, Odd Fellows or Masons and, perhaps most importantly, churches such as Trinity AME and Calvary Baptist.

Each of these venues provided fun, nourishment and safety to Black Salt Lakers. But none could provide the capacity to welcome everybody in, especially young people. Something more was needed, something that would require the combined support of all these groups.

William Gregory had come to Salt Lake City in the mid-1910s as a Pullman porter for the Union Pacific railroad. Originally from Tennessee, he traveled all over the country for his job, but a frightening experience back home spurred him on to relocate to Utah with his sweetheart Nettie Grimes (1890-1964), with whom he had been courting by mail.

"[William's] father was run out of Tennessee by the Ku Klux Klan and his [railroad] route took him back home," related Tony Lovett, a grandson. "Once he found out [what happened to his father], he married my grandmother and then ... settled in Salt Lake City and never went back."

Grimes—an accomplished musician with a commitment to education and equal rights—quickly got involved in her new community, particularly in a women's sewing group called the Nimble Thimble Club. Working with her friends and neighbors, they established programs through the auspices of Trinity AME and Calvary Baptist and championed the idea of a larger recreational facility for their youth.

"My grandma was really small but she was a powerful woman," Lovett said, "When she spoke, you listened."

"She was a very, very fair person," added Craig Gregory of his grandmother, "Stern, but fair."

In a 1976 interview with the Deseret News, William Gregory related how Grimes immediately began working with and for the young people of the community after they arrived in the state. "There just wasn't much wholesome recreation for the young folks down here on the west side back then," he said.

William Gregory—tall, quiet, and a "notorious gentleman," as his grandson Rodney Gregory described him—matched Nettie Grimes in civic-mindedness.

The Nettie Gregory Center as it stands today - WES LONG
  • Wes Long
  • The Nettie Gregory Center as it stands today

It was he who purchased the land upon which the Nettie Gregory Center stands, serving on its board until 1977. Together, they were leading forces in the funding and construction of this center, the first of its kind in the city and built by its African American residents.

Building and Loss
Eva Sexton (1921-2016), who along with her husband Henry (1925-2004) were involved in the project from the start, described the bake sales and bazaars the community held to raise funds during a 1983 interview.

"[The Nimble Thimble Club] gave ... chicken dinners, chicken fryers, [and] fish frys ... and they made a little money," Eva Sexton related.

Walking door to door, people like the Sextons got the community involved. Brick upon brick was laid by community members devoting their energies in the off-hours. It took years for the building to take shape.

Twenty years after the effort began, the Salt Lake Community Club—soon renamed the Nettie Gregory Center—was finally a reality. Unfortunately, Nettie never lived to see her dream come to full fruition.

With the construction of a freeway exit forcing the loss of their longtime home on Mead Avenue—a devastating cycle poised to repeat itself in the present with a new interstate expansion running through Rose Park and Guadalupe—the Gregorys relocated to a house on Jeremy Street. It was a dispiriting experience, soon made even worse by Nettie's sudden death on July 6, 1964, a mere five months before the center's planned opening.

On Sunday, Nov. 29, 1964, dedication services were held for the Nettie Gregory Center with the governor and members of the Utah Supreme Court in attendance. Velma Oliver (1907-1991), who'd been involved with the project from the beginning, emceed the occasion. Prayers were given by Palmer Ross, then-pastor of Trinity AME, and Rev. John M. Wade, the director of Student Christian Fellowship House.

From that day forward, the center was used often by the young and old alike, welcoming anyone who wished to enter.

"My wife and I always felt that there should be complete equality there," William Gregory told the Deseret News in 1976. "We wanted the center to serve everyone."

Initially operating with the work of citizen volunteers, over the years, the center was incorporated into the Salt Lake County recreational program, and then later leased to various nonprofit organizations when larger recreational facilities began opening up in the 1970s and 1980s.

"There used to be activities here every week," Bernice Benns told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1990. Benns (1932-1991) spent many hours in the building through her work on the center's board and through such educational and civic organizations as Blacks Unlimited and Project New Pride.

New Pride
The center was the site of Juneteenth, Halloween and Christmas parties; of voter drives and after-school job programs; of weddings and dances; of plays and basketball tournaments; and even an invitational jazz festival. Most prominently, it was also the longtime base of operations for the Salt Lake NAACP until the 1990s.

Funding for the center was always a struggle, but to those who went there, it still invites happy memories. Gary Elebert Oliver, a retired investment adviser, has fond recollections of "our rec center."

He remembers playing on the center's sports teams as a child under the center's first director, Dailey Oliver Jr., and with tutelage from NAACP youth leader Eugene Thompson (1928-1977).

"If we did sports," Oliver said, "it was because of Mr. Thompson."

Lindsay Taylor recalls learning to play pingpong at the Nettie Gregory Center and sharing the snacks that they got there with his peers, particularly a type of cookie that came in packs of five or six.

"It had a vending machine, and if we were lucky, we had money—we didn't often have money to spare," Taylor said. "The younger ones would want [cookies], too, and so they would just hang around us to get one [from the pack]."

For Taylor, the center "was a special place to go in the neighborhood where you could play and stuff with individuals and feel safe.

Marsha Boyd, a former volunteer/staff member at the Center, recalls the times she went there with her friends to make their own fries in the kitchen, and her work with Alberta Henry on both the Soul Sisters Drill Team and the Nettie Gregory Summer Program of 1973.

Members of the Soul Sisters Drill Team - MARSHA BOYD
  • Marsha Boyd
  • Members of the Soul Sisters Drill Team

Regarding this latter program, Boyd laughingly remembers driving around Salt Lake in her Volkswagen—stuffed with children—to take them to various facilities for swimming and field trips.

"Everybody loved it," Boyd said, "The kids loved being there, the workers loved doing it, and the parents loved that we were watching their kids."

The Center Today
As time passed, public use of the building became more haphazard. One primary reason for this was that Salt Lake—and Utah generally—was changing, in some regards thanks to the ongoing impact of the nationwide civil rights movement.

Following passage of 1964's Civil Rights Act, Utah could no longer turn a blind eye to disparities in public accommodations and employment practices. Suddenly, African Americans had a much wider array of options regarding where they could live, eat, work and play.

While the Nettie Gregory Center continued to house employment and intervention programs up to the early 2000s, the terrain in Salt Lake had changed and many of the longtime forces in the center's leadership were passing away.

For the past several years, the building has stood unused. But proprietor Duane Bourdeaux has plans to bring it back. While many of the details are still being formulated, Bourdeaux is optimistic about the prospects of what the center can offer the local community today. "There's a lot of history in the African American community that used the center," Bourdeaux says, "We want to be able to do the same thing."

Whether it is serving children or hosting community events and cultural activities, Bourdeaux sees a future that still features the center as a gathering place. If all goes successfully, a unique landmark of this city may yet live on.

A portrait of Nettie remains over the entryway of the center that bears her name, welcoming all with a benevolent smile and with eyes that saw much in their time. She and so many others of her day worked for a world where all races and religions might learn to labor and live and play together.

The center they built was bestowed to the generations that have followed for this purpose—for the "one great bundle of humanity," as described in the words of poet Frances E. W. Harper.

Now, the Nettie Gregory Center stands in need of repairs for renewed use and, perhaps, historical designation and formal recognition. It invites Salt Lakers to consider—not just during February's Black History Month—the truth that Bernice Benns once expressed in a 1980s oral history.

"God," Benns said, "didn't make all the flowers one color."

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About The Author

Wes Long

Wes Long

Wes Long's writing first appeared in City Weekly in 2021. In 2023, he was named Listings Desk manager and then Contributing Editor in 2024. Long majored in history at the University of Utah and enjoys a good book or film, an excursion into nature or the nearest historic district, or simply basking in the company... more

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