Fifty years ago The Way was born — celebrate the legacy Aug. 6

Verlena Matey-Keke with an early history of the organization by Rolland Robinson
Verlena Matey-Keke with an early history of the organization by Rolland Robinson (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Learn about its life and death from founding staffers August 6

There are still community members who, when asked, easily remember The Way. But their numbers are dwindling.

“I run into people all the time that do” remember the “nontraditional” community center founded in 1966 on Minneapolis’ North Side, said Verlena Matey-Keke, one of the center’s founding staff members. The center’s 50th year of its founding and legacy will be recognized and discussed on August 6, 9 am to 3 pm, at Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC).

UROC is located just a few blocks from where The Way once stood on Plymouth Avenue North, said Matey-Keke in a recent MSR interview.

“The Black community in 1966 drew the line,” she recalled of the watershed time in local and national history. The year earlier saw the death of Malcolm X, Bloody Sunday, the summertime 1965 Watts disturbance, and then the founding of the Black Panther Party. The Plymouth Avenue disturbance occurred the following year.

“All of this led up to drawing the line,” said Matey-Keke. “There was a big scrambling of business people to respond to that. They were taken aback because they thought this was a liberal place and we were all happy.”

Local businessman Raymond Plank “headed a commission…of like-minded people, and they started looking for a place where the young people could gather,” continued Matey-Keke.

The owner of an old fish market building at 1913 Plymouth Avenue North donated it to the “controversial” Black community organization, The Way Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. As a result, The Way became “part and parcel of the National Movement for Black Liberation, and not just a local organization,” states a press release announcing the August 6 event at UROC.

During its peak years (1966-1975), The Way served local Black youth as an after-school and Saturday educational and cultural outlet. Its name gained significance both locally and nationally.

“We were moving along, developing programs,” said Matey-Keke. “We had some detractors, but we didn’t let it stop us. We focused on what we needed to do.

“We were able to do what we did because we did not accept government money, and we did not request any funds. There were wealthy benefactors who were trying to make a difference.”

The late Syl Jones was The Way’s first director. “He hired me… He wanted me to set up the infrastructure, the filing system, communications lines” as the center’s first administrative assistant.

Mahmoud El-Kati was brought in to head up The Way’s educational department. “Mahmoud started developing syllabuses and all kinds of things to teach” in an Afrocentric fashion, said Matey-Keke. “He began to teach us things we never heard before — positive things about Africa. We had unorthodox classes that you couldn’t find in other schools.”

El-Kati was later joined by Babatude Olatunji, who introduced African drumming and his “drums of passion” on the Ed Sullivan Show. He lectured at the center, as did Lindiwe Mabuzza, then a South African exile but later a member of Nelson Mandela’s administration as an ambassador to Germany and the United Kingdom. She taught literature, along with other volunteers.

“During our staff meetings we would be discussing revolutionary books,” recalled Matey-Keke. “The staff was always honing their perception of Black people so that we can project an accurate picture to the young people.”

A young Northsider, Prince Rogers Nelson, practiced his music at The Way, as well as others like Morris Day and André Cymone. Legendary notables such as Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Floyd McKissack of CORE, and writer-poet Amiri Baraka made unannounced visits to The Way, drawing sizable crowds once word of their presence spread through the community.

“There were many tours [by educators] from all over who would come through to see how we were handling [students],” said Matey-Keke. “The students were behaving themselves and listening because we were talking about them.”

Board changes and a change in executive directors had an adverse effect on the organization, which Matey-Keke and others felt was exacerbated by constant fighting with local and state officials. Even some Blacks played a role in its eventual demise in the late 1980s.

“A group of us waged a big fight” to keep The Way open, including selling its first building to the City of Minneapolis and reinvesting the sale into a new building in 1984, she pointed out.  “The leadership at the time felt when they moved us off the avenue [that] they were moving us out of the way, and a big controversy grew about where The Way would be located. There’s a hidden story.”

Matey-Keke and others hope that residents will come to UROC August 6 to hear about The Way. “I want people to know what we accomplished.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to