Lynette Woodard Recreation Center, Wichita

Fiftieth Anniversary Planned for Lynette Woodard Center

If you’re an old school Wichitan, you know the tan concrete building located at 18th and Volutsia in Northeast Wichita as the MEFSEC. That stands for Moving Effectively for Social and Economic Change. No, you don’t say it as initials, it’s just a word that brings fond memories to those whose life the center made a positive difference.

Now, the center is better known as the Lynette Woodard Recreation Center, and this year the center turns 50 years old. It’s a great time to look back at the center’s beginning and the role it’s played in a community that struggled with segregation, bore the brunt of busing, has dealt with poverty and drug abuse, but still managed to turn out an unusual number of professional athletes, all who polished their game at MEFSEC.

The Center’s Origins

MEFSEC opened in 1972, but the history of the center dates back to the late 60s Civil Rights Movement in Wichita. A major turning point was the August 1968 riot brought on when three white men shot two young Black men walking along 17th Street and a fight broke out between Blacks and Whites at a nearby tavern. A night of street fighting followed.

According to Gretchen Eick, in her book “Dissent in Wichita,” Black leaders had heard a militia group from wellington, KS, was coming to town asked that all major roads entering Northeast Wichita be blocked to those who were not residents of the area.

“Instead, that night the mayor called in four hundred members of the National Guard,” wrote Eick.

For three days, the press reported fire bombings, some sniper activity and a series of robberies with National Guardsmen in full combat gear patrolling the streets of northeast Wichita in tanks.

Saying they understood why people acted out their frustrations in the streets, the council of Model Cities, a concept pushed by Wichita Civil Rights Attorney Chester Lewis, proposed using funds from the federal antipoverty program for a series of efforts they believed could address the primary causes of poverty. Included in that list of recommendations was building a recreation center and health clinic in Northeast Wichita.

To bring attention to the request, the NAACP sponsored a rally with nearly 500 young people pouring into the City Council chambers to make their voices heard. With their spokesman Robert L. Mitchell stating, “We are Americans and proud of it, but we must enjoy all the rights of Whites,” the group asked for a recreational center in Northeast Wichita.

Basketball Legacy

The center became so famous for turning out basketball standouts that it was featured on numerous national platforms, including Sports Illustrated, as one of the top places to play high-quality basketball in America. A number of hoopers who went on to play in the NBA fine-tuned their game at MEFSEC.

“You would get there early so you could play with Xavier McDaniel (a 1985 round 1 NBA draft pick) and Cliff Levingston (a 1982 round 1 pick).

Other standouts included Antoine Carr and Korleone Young. While he eventually gained national attention as an NFL rushing back, Barry Sanders was a regular on the MEFSEC courts.

“He’s a football player, but his first love was basketball,” said Cliff Fanning, one of the center’s earliest directors in a 2020 interview.

Wichita native DJ Fisher credits the center for introducing him to the game of basketball. At 12, Fisher received his first job at MEFSEC as part of the city’s summer youth job program. In addition, he played in the infamous “Hoop It Up” Summer Basketball League, which was credited with keeping youth off the streets during the summer and with stemming violence.

Fishers says the center was more than a basketball court, it became a safe haven for many.

“It was very competitive back then. No violence or fights,” said James Harding, who was the center’s director after Fanning in a 2020 interview. “We had pushing and shoving like in a game, but overall, it was strictly basketball.”

Nothing Stays the Same

MEFSEC’s name was changed to the Lynette Woodard Center in 1984 in honor of the Wichita native and basketball Hall of Fame member. Woodard, who played for the University of Kansas, was an Olympic Gold medalist in basketball and the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters. ,

Prior to the center being renamed, the center’s basketball legacy had begun to fade. Fanning says the city’s change to a “Pay-to-Play policy curtailed a lot of traffic at the center.

“In these low-income areas, that didn’t generate a lot of revenue,” Fanning said.

According to Fanning, a lot of the center’s old basketball traffic has gone to the YMCAs at Hwy 96 and Woodlawn and downtown.

“If you don’t have a car to get to the Y then you’re missing out,” said Fanning, “but that doesn’t help individuals without transportation.”

“What I would like to see is more tournaments come back,” said Harding. “To see more three-on-three competitions. They can create an atmosphere of folks wanting to go back and play basketball there.” Harding

Anniversary Celebration 

The City of Wichita Parks and Recreation Center has scheduled a 50th Anniversary Celebration on Sat., July 30 beginning with a free basketball clinic for boys and girls ages 6 to 14 with Hall of Fame legend Lynette Woodard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  To register go to https://bit.ly/WoodardBball.  

The day continues with an open house from 1 – 2 p.m. 

Former Voice reporter Malcolm Carter and freelancer John Paul contributed to this story.