Harris-Stowe gives new life to storied Vashon Center

The event and project represent “music, history, learning and education, relaxation and leisure, security, and freedom,” said Bernie Hayes, a member of the hall of fame and director of the institute.

LaTonia Collins Smith, President Harris- Stowe State University. Image by Ruth Thaler-Carter

In an upbeat yet moving ceremony on Tuesday, April 11, leaders of Harris-Stowe State
University and their partners cut the ribbon on the ambitious restoration of its Vashon
Center, the new headquarters of the National Black Radio Hall of Fame and the Wolff
Jazz Institute and Gallery.

In the days of segregation, the building was known as the Vashon Community Center and was one of only four Black-only recreational centers in St. Louis.

The event and project represent “music, history, learning and education, relaxation and
leisure, security, and freedom,” said Bernie Hayes, a member of the hall of fame and
director of the institute. “Words cannot express how much this means to me and the other
23 chapters of the Black Radio Hall of Fame.”

Hayes and other speakers thanked partners Navigate Building Solutions, KAI Design and
Build, Pareti Mobile Walls, ICS Construction Services, and the Missouri History Society
Preservation Foundation for their participation in the project.

Restoring the center, Hayes said, shows that “we’re the ones who can decide what our lives
can be. The Vashon Center is a testament to the culture and history of St. Louis. The truest
way to make dreams come true is to live them.”

Harris-Stowe chief financial officer Terence Findley and director of alumni relations
Bennie Gilliam-Williams echoed Hayes’s perspectives and noted that artifacts from
Vashon High School are part of the building’s new life.

“What a humbling experience to reopen the Vashon Center,” said incoming 21st Harris-
Stowe president LaTonia Collins Smith. “This facility honors those who came before us
and will inspire those who (are still to come).” She thanked William Lacy Clay Jr., senior
policy adviser and former US representative, and former US Senator Roy Blunt for their
support in obtaining the funding for the project, and the project partners for their
contributions to its success.

“These are exciting times for this institution,” said Clay. He praised Smith for the
partnership between the NGA and the university that will “pay dividends” for Harris-Stowe
graduates in terms of knowledge and jobs, and reminded the audience that the center is
named for George Boyer Vashon, the poet, lawyer, and abolitionist who was New York
State’s first Black attorney and the first African American graduate of Oberlin College, and
John Vashon, a noted St. Louis educator.

Neil Westbrook, who grew up in the Mill Creek Valley area that is now the site of Harris-
Stowe, was the ceremony’s last speaker. “It’s a pleasure in my lifetime to see this happen
and this transition,” Westbrook said. He also gave an emotional thank you to Clay for
helping his son join the military and be able to come home to St. Louis as a recruiter.

The event wrapped up with Harris-Stowe staff and project partners joining to cut the
ribbon across the entrance to the new Vashon Center and welcome attendees a tour of the
building led by Hayes.

The center will be home to orientation and classrooms for the university, and a new
repository for historical documents such as works from William L. Clay Sr., the late
attorney and civil rights leader Frankie Muse Freeman, and the late Harris-Stowe
president emeritus Dr. Henry Givens, Jr. Generations of Vashon athletes and supporters
were surely cheering along with those at the event.


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