‘It was the only place they could go in and dance and party and skate.’ The legacy of Hattie Louise Neblett

February 4, 2022 | 12:09 am

Updated February 3, 2022 | 11:08 pm

In honor of Black History Month, Owensboro Times is providing the historic stories behind the names of some of the City’s locations, and behind some who haven’t received similar notoriety. The Kentucky Room of Daviess County Public Library helped with sources for the stories.

In the 1930s, the young couple of Dr. Reginald Claypool Neblett and Hattie Louise Neblett came to Owensboro for the first time, and their first day was rather unordinary.

Reginald (who hailed from Clarksville, Tennessee) was stopping in town at a drugstore to ask for directions. While talking with the pharmacist, a man came into the store pleading for a doctor, as his friend had been shot down the street.

Immediately, Reginald went to work to help the man.

Shortly after that incident, he and his wife settled in the town and opened up practice shortly after. Reginald later became the first Black physician in Owensboro, serving the city in the way he had from the start.

Reginald’s first day was a time of service, and Hattie’s was rather similar — for different reasons, however.

Hattie, born in Georgia, taught music and home economics at a local elementary school. While teaching and being in the community, she noticed that several of the Black children needed a safe haven to go after school. It wasn’t too long after that Reginald moved his practice into his home, and Hattie formed this safe haven in her basement on Elm Street.

The year was 1936 when Hattie was officially elected the president of the Community Recreation Council. Over time several children would come into their basement and eventually, Hattie noted a shift was needed to provide for all of the children.

For the next 6 years, they rotated between churches and schools to plan and host the coming week’s events. It wasn’t until 1940 that they moved into a warehouse on the corner of 5th Street and Elm Street, where they have been ever since — technically.

“It was a terrible looking place,” Hattie said in an interview with the Messenger-Inquirer newspaper in 1978. “People were saying ‘Why did you all buy that? You can’t do anything with it.’ But we were just so pleased. We thought we had something and of course, the kids did, too. It was the only place they could go in and dance and party and skate.”

Over time, the community center was known by many names: “a wholesome place” for parents to leave their children, an “inter-racial head start nursery program” — but the fact of being a safe haven for the children in the community rang true for Hattie.

Hattie and the council planned events constantly, bringing crowds to the community center to play ping pong, bowl, have choir practice, and many other activities.

Throughout all of the events and years, Hattie remained the president of the center from 1936 to 1973. And after almost 40 years of service, the Center received the Janes Addams Medal from the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers in May of 1978. She and her husband were amongst the nominees across the country.

A few months later, Reginald suffered from a stroke while working at the hospital. While hospitalized, he died from a second stroke on July 17, 1978, at the age of 79.

After her husband’s death, Hattie still served at the community center. By 1979 she had served 43 years at the center she helped start from the grassroots.

Eventually, the building wasn’t big enough to continue holding events, so they started doing renovations. When that was finished in the late 1970s, they opened the doors yet again to provide the tradition of what Hattie began.

And this time they officially renamed the center to the H.L. Neblett Center in Hattie’s honor.

Although it’s been 43 since the naming of the Center, current Executive Director Keith Cottoner said that he still asks himself how can the center live up to everything that Hattie Neblett set out to accomplish.

“I think it goes back to focusing on the kids, whether it be giving them somewhere to go, a safe haven to go to, educating them and then helping mold them into becoming successful community members,” Cottoner said.

Cottoner said because of the foundation that Hattie set out, community centers like the Neblett Center are rare in this region, to a degree.

Now in its 86th year, located in the backyard of its previous building, he said it’s not often you find a Black-run community center that has been around and benefiting a community since the 1930s — especially in Western Kentucky.

He said that — similar to how Hattie served as President — he and the board come together to make decisions for the Neblett Center and the community independent of the influence of the city government.

It is a grassroots, independent, nonprofit organization that still sets out to provide positive a place for youth to convene. Cottoner said that for an organization to be successful for almost 90 years, it shows the ability to adapt with the changing youth.

“I’ve talked to people who knew the Nebletts, talk to people who have watched this facility go through all the changes and adapt to every change has happened, because kids are always different — every generation of kids is different — and this place has stood the test of time,” Cottoner said. “Through the good and bad. It’s always been here.”

February 4, 2022 | 12:09 am

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