By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
You can’t have a physical transformation until you have a spiritual transformation. – Cory Booker
The Frederick Douglass Community Association was established in Toledo in 1919 by prominent civic leaders Albertus Brown and J.B. Simmons. The organization, now known as The Doug, started with a small core of people of color to provide a social gathering experience and a place for community engagement. The Doug grew substantially to become the proud busy hub and center of the community’s social, political, religious, and cultural activity.
However, The Doug lost its direction and impact nearly a century later. Enter Reggie Williams, tasked with rebuilding the iconic organization which had slipped to the threshold of extinction. When he volunteered to join the Doug’s board in 2014, little did Williams know that his upbringing and early life experiences equipped him perfectly as the one to bring new life to the soul of one of our community’s most important cultural organizations.
The following is our conversation about his rebirth and that of The Frederick Douglass Center.
Perryman: Let’s talk briefly about your journey. Where did it start?
Williams: I was born and raised in Toledo and attended Glenwood Elementary and Old West End Junior High when I first saw a blue bandana. I didn’t know what that meant. After school, I started running with the “fellas” because I wanted to be a part, not knowing what I was getting into. A friend stopped me and said, ‘Reggie, go home,” and I was just like, “I wanna run with y’all.” He repeated, “Go home!” like he was my dad or something like that. I took it, went home, and I thank God for him because he saved my life, not getting involved with the Crips at that time, but living in that neighborhood, the territory they so-called claimed. From then on, I told my mother I would like to move in with my grandmother, who lived in Springfield Township. With that, I was exposed to a different culture, and I thrived academically and athletically. I made a name for myself within that new setting.
Perryman: How did moving from an urban setting to a more rural or suburban setting and being with your grandparents affect you?
Williams: That changed my upbringing drastically. I had a consciousness and an awareness. The Holy Spirit would speak to me through nature, through the elements, and to hear the Most High’s voice. My grandparents cultivated that in me and allowed me to thrive because they were spiritual people. They also planted a work ethic within me, the ability to give of yourself, to love family, or be family oriented. If I had not made that move and stayed in the urban setting, I would have gotten caught up with the wrong crowd.
Perryman: Why did you take this job?
Williams: Let me rewind the tape to walk that dog forward. I worked at Pilkington in Rossford as a glass technician and had an eight-hour back surgery to put six screws and two rods in my back. After the surgery, my surgeon told me that I couldn’t walk again. I said to the surgeon’s face, ‘I’m going to walk again,’ but it took me three years to walk, and it took me three years to get on disability. So being homebound, unable to do what I used to do, and having an infant son at the time, my wife was taking care of me. She ended up sick, so all three were lying in bed, and my 12-year-old daughter cared for us all. You’re talking about the tough times of not being able to one, your manhood, and the physicality of trying to provide for your family and cannot. My faith, that’s what I had to depend on. So, going through recovery, rehabilitation I went from a wheelchair to the walker to the cane, and then finally, I ended up getting a nerve stimulator implant – a battery implanted in my back and two electrodes attached to my spine, which disrupts the pain signals to my brain. That’s what I had to battle. I said to myself, ‘I need to reinvent myself. I need to do something to feel value in myself.’
Perryman: What initially brought you to The Doug?
Williams: I first came on the board in April of 2014. In October 2014, we were sitting in the board meeting, and information came out about an employee’s misappropriation of funds. The remnant of the board was sitting at the table, and the question was asked who would be our next Board president?
So, I became the president of The Douglass Center just after six months of being on the board and just wanting to be a positive man of color to do something to keep our doors open and not understanding nonprofit business, not understanding all the components that come along with that, just a concerned positive person that wanted to do right.
I was the board president from 2014-2018, resigned in February of 2018, and told the board, you guys got it and take care of The Doug. I did my due diligence and took it as far as I could, and the board asked me to come back to be the director. So, I came back in 2018 as the executive director. I’ll be starting my fifth year here in August of 2023.
Perryman: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Williams: Seeing that we can keep the doors open to provide a safe haven for our young people, providing resources to the whole family.
Perryman: Can you give that some context? It suggests that there’s been a situation when those doors may not have remained open.
Williams: I would say that The Doug was on life support with the hand on the plug, and I felt like I was doing CPR. When you perform CPR, you must have a partner to give you relief so they can continue pumping the heart. So, a few allowed me to have some relief in that, and I was just like, ‘It’s still alive, it’s got a heartbeat, we gotta pump it, take your hand off the plug, it’s going to live!’
That was my commitment when it was in dire straits and the possibility of The Doug no longer existing in its 96th year. We had to do something and not just say, ‘oh well, we can’t do anything about it and leave The Doug in its state.’ So I vowed not just to give the organization its funeral.
Perryman: Was that because of a lack of funding, threatening its viability, or other things?
Williams: All the above. Funding, lack of support from the community, no programs, behind on payroll taxes, no insurance, no directors’ and officers’ insurance, no proper oversight, internal controls in disarray, you name it.
Perryman: So specifically, what did you do to turn the organization around?
Williams: I started asking questions. What do I need to do to get out of debt? Can we set up a payment plan? Since we’re a nonprofit, can something be forgiven? I asked persons to do certain things pro bono as far as legal aid is concerned, writing proposals, trying to find grants, and just the volunteerism of it all started to be birthed in me because at that time, being the president, I was a nonpaid personnel person so for that timeframe of the rough seas of The Douglass Center I was just a volunteer.
Perryman: What has been your biggest challenge?
Williams: For me, the biggest challenge was to turn the perception of The Doug at its worst and try to win the community’s support and demonstrate that The Doug is alive and well.
Perryman: What programs are you now providing?
Williams: Currently, we partner with Owens Community College to provide high school equivalency classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ve partnered with The Junction Coalition to support our programs and partnerships mutually. Also, our afterschool program, The Great Outdoors Summer Experience, exposes our youth to things already in our backyard. We are also currently doing podcasting, horseback riding, and the Tacklebox Program. We are also getting youth to the pools, utilizing the Metroparks, and then just utilizing our athletic facilities component and the kitchen, which will help with culinary and expose them to cooking classes and things of that nature.
Perryman: Who are your major supporters?
Williams: Lucas County has supported our grants with the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge grants. Also, the City of Toledo has been a significant partner in funding us with grants. The Toledo Museum of Art has been a significant partner. Also, Reverend Harvey Savage with The Kitchen of the Poor, Pastor Tim Pettaway with Walk the Word, and Pastor Jerry Boose have been a good support. Bowling Green State University produced the new logo that we have now, The Doug 419. Divine Printing has been a great partner. Owens Corning has given us 20 laptops to start our computer lab. Earthly Groups, a new partnership, has been spearheading our garden. We also have individuals and silent partners who wish to remain behind the scenes. The Movement, as far as one, was instrumental in being able to celebrate The Doug’s anniversary. We will be 104 years this September and I could not have done anything without respecting the foundation laid 104 years ago and the support of our great partners.
Perryman: I admire you for what you’ve done and the accomplishments made. Is there anything else you want to add for our readers?
Williams: We thrive on community support to keep our vision alive and fresh. So, we ask people to give, whether $5, $10, or whatever the Most-High God puts on their heart to give to The Frederick Douglass Center at our Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union account. Those funds will be used to provide programs and purchase new equipment such as projectors, microphones, speakers, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, and anything to keep us sustainable.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, Ph.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org