In the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s deterioration of the physical and spiritual structure of the West Poplar area of Philadelphia became apparent. The blight of condemned, dilapidated houses, the absentee landlords, joblessness and increasing street crimes had already scourged the area immediately to the north and to the far south of West Poplar community.
Reverend E. Luther Cunningham, who was pastoring St. Paul’s at the time, was involved in the work of activism and renewal in the community to combat some of the very ills that seemed to mark the community at the time and in 1961, an anonymous benefactor who wanted to support his efforts gave him an unrestricted gift of $135, 000 for community improvement. The decision to build a Community House resulted. After arrangements were made for the purchase of land and decisions made concerning how the church would manage the property and project, construction began. On September 9, 1962, the cornerstone laying and dedication service was held.
At this time, also, a general committee and subcommittees were formed chaired by Theodore F. Hawkins, M.D. These committees were to plan for the opening, the initial administration, and the continued operation of the new facility. Mr. Augustus Baxter was chosen as the first director; Miss Marian Hawkins was the first secretary.
On February 7, 1963, the Community House opened its doors, The work of giving direction, educational and recreational aid to the needy people of the West Poplar area was officially begun.
The first Board of Managers (those entrusted to mold the objectives and implement the program) was carefully selected by the General Committee and the Pastor. Theodore F. Hawkins, M.D., was chairman, and others included Barry Freeman, Frances Cunningham, Shirley R. Hawkins, Betty Strange, Ernest Congelton, William Strange, George Dixon, Willie Brown, John Nunn, Alonzo White, Gladys Wylie, Gladys Campbell, Beatrice Butler, John Robinson, Augustus Baxter, Shirley Page, Josephine McGill, Abbie Corbett, Jewell Morrissette, Velma Rice, Janie Freeman, Beatrice Davenport, Theodore Black, Laura J. Hawkins, and Herbert Womack.
The first year of operation was a rousing success in spite of a few obstacles and disappointments. Four hundred ninety-four young people became active members of the Community House. Many students gained knowledge through the use of the library and tutorial programs. The purposes of the Community House were to serve as a missionary outpost of St. Paul’s baptist Church; provide a physical, mental and spiritual haven for all in the community and to motivate and give guidance to the needy of the community.
Toward the end of the second year, the COmmunity House, the church and the surrounding community experienced a severe joly. The Gounder and inspiring leader of the Community House, Reverend E. Luther Cunningham died on Sunday, November 1, 1964. Fortunately, the work of the Community House was able to continue.
On November 7, 1965, by vote of the Board of Managers and approval of the church, the name of the Community House was changed to the E. Luther Cunningham Community House.
Despite the movement of the many church members from the community, the congregation determined the continuing support of the center was essential to address the increased challenges faced by today’s youth.
The Community House (currently referred to as The E. Luther Cunningham Community Center) and St. Paul’s Baptist Church have not abandoned the mission. The inspiration that nurtured its beginning continues to grow in those to whom its development is entrusted.