West Chester’s Melton Center Serves Marginalized Communities

Melton Center executive director, Kenneth Winston | Photos by Tessa Marie Images

Lisa Dorsey and Kenneth Winston are working to continue the center’s legacy.

Swimming at the Melton Center’s pool was the highlight of Lisa Dorsey’s summers. Now the president of its board of directors, Dorsey learned to swim there, and her father volunteered as a lifeguard. Her grandparents lived around the corner, in West Chester’s East Side, a traditionally Black neighborhood filled with homeowners and middle class families.

Dorsey spent most of her childhood at the Melton Center. She was part of its pre-K Head Start program in the 1960s. There were teen dances, sports leagues and barbecues in the 1980s. “It was the focal point of the Black community in West Chester,” Dorsey says. “It was a beacon of light for us.”

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As she grew older, Dorsey realized that the Melton Center was also a refuge. In other parts of West Chester and the rest of Chester County, Blacks were discouraged, if not outright barred, from participating in community organizations. “My parents, and certainly my grandparents, were not welcome in many places, including the YMCA,” Dorsey says. “The Melton Center was created because Black folks had no or limited use of recreational and physical exercise facilities.”

Providing resources for the marginalized and disenfranchised was the organizing mission of the Melton Center, initially called the West Chester Community Center when it was founded in 1918 by Leslie Pinckney Hill. Born in 1880 to a former slave, Hill graduated from Harvard University cum laude. After earning his master’s degree in education, Hill taught at Tuskegee Institute, eventually becoming president of Cheyney State Teachers College (now Cheyney University), a historically Black college.

In 2004, the center was renamed the Charles A. Melton Arts & Education Center to honor the memory of its longtime leader. Melton served as the center’s director from 1966 to 1980. The organization’s website describes him as “a spokesman for the African-American community on many critical issues involving race relations during the difficult times of the 1940s through the 1970s.”

Dorsey confirms the activism component. “The Melton Center was integral in organizing community protests,” she says. “We once met at the center and marched to the county courthouse to demand equal pay.”

It’s impossible to know what Hill and Melton would think of Black Lives Matter. But it’s equally impossible to think they wouldn’t support the latest chapter in the long fight to combat racial inequity and injustice. “The problem is not new,” Dorsey says with a quiet sigh. “But there is something different about what’s happened the past few months. I’ve been to protests in West Chester, Philly and Washington, D.C. They’ve been diverse crowds with Black and white people peacefully demanding change. White people are listening and participating, which has not typically happened in the past.”

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The Melton Center’s Kenneth Winston with rental and building coordinator Renee Washington.

Though it’s been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Melton Center continues to play an active role in battling racial inequity. That work begins with early childhood development resources for West Chester’s underserved citizens. “We have one of the most successful after-school programs in the borough, if not all of West Chester,” Dorsey says. “It’s a mix of academic assistance, cultural enrichment and mentoring relationships. And its success is a credit to the work of Kenneth Winston.”

Winston became executive director of the Melton Center in 2011, shortly after joining the organization as a volunteer. Inspired by the Million Man March, Winston founded Phoenixville Area Positive Alternatives in 1995 to provide academic and athletic programs to marginalized kids. Winston’s niece took over as PAPA’s executive director, leaving him free to pursue other challenges.

He found them at the Melton Center, which had fallen on financial hard times. After the heyday of Hill and Melton, the center suffered from a lack of leadership and funding. The center’s rebirth started in 2008, when Dorsey joined the board. Two years later, Winston walked through the door to volunteer. Dorsey had just helped secure a $10,000 grant to restart the center’s after-school program, but she didn’t have anyone to run it. “Ken walked in and said, ‘What can I do?,’” Dorsey recalls. “We handed him the ball, and he ran with it.”

Winston also restarted the center’s basketball league and other athletic programming, and revamped its Community Day to broaden its reach to a growing Latino population. “It’s about unity, community and inclusion,” Winston says. “I wanted to diversify and bring Latinos, whites and women into the Melton Center. The first thing I did was throw a concert with the hipsters from the other side of town.”

Much work remains, but that’s not unmanageable for Winston. “Legacy is what attracted me to the Melton Center,” he says. “I think about Dr. Hill and Mr. Melton as the giants who walked these halls and served this community, and I want to follow in their footsteps.”

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In addition to the main facility reopening with COVID-containment restrictions, Winston looks forward to construction resuming on 41 apartments and 10 townhomes on two acres of land owned by the Melton Center. The complex will be workforce affordable housing, with tenants’ rent adjusted for their income. The pool had to be deconstructed to make way for the development, and it hasn’t been popular with everyone at the Melton Center. “But it will continue our mission,” Winston says. “We’re here to serve the least, the last, and the left behind.”

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