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Our History


In 1982, Arthur and Edna Carlson of Chicago retired and moved to Kalamazoo.  As residents of Kalamazoo, the couple became aware of the lack of resources and support available to the African American community living on the north side of Kalamazoo.  The Carlson’s faith and community advocacy birthed a church collaborative outreach program that grew into what is today the Ecumenical Senior Center. 

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Edna Carlson, Founder

Collaborative discussions followed in 1983 with discussions with church leadership from St. Augustine’s Cathedral, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and St. Thomas Moore Parish. After sharing their concerns with their priest at St. Augustine Cathedral, in 1983 the church's Outreach Committee administered the Ecumenical program. The goal of this program was to enhance the seniors' self-esteem with dignity and respect, and to deliver services to make their lives better.

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David Johnson with his father

Mabry Johnson

The Ecumenical Senior Center is currently operating out of the Van Avery Drug Store and stands today as a memory of a famous protest against the drug store in 1963.  Many refer to this historic event as the start of the Civil Rights Movements in Kalamazoo.  

Article from the Kalamazoo Gazette 

David Johnson was a 17-year old who wanted a job that summer of 1963.  He also wanted to make a point.  So he and two other black teenagers went to Van Avery Drug Store - a longtime northside institution that never had had a black employee on its payroll - and asked for an employment application.  

Like a match to dry kindling, that refusal sparked one of the most significant and memorable episodes in the history of Kalamazoo's black community.  

Johnson, then president of the local youth chapter of the NAACP and others organized picketing and a boycott against the store.  It was the first time Kalamazoo's blacks had ever publicly drawn a line in the sand to protest their treatment as second-class citizens.  

The protesters struck a chord, especially with young people, and three weeks after the picketing started, Van Avery signed an agreement in which he agreed to notify the NAACP when a job opening came up, and said he would supply the NAACP with a list of job applicants.  


The protest lasted the entire summer and continued into the fall, until Van Avery hired his first black employee.  

In 1992, ESC moved into the historically relevant building located at 702 North Burdick that once housed the Van Avery Drug Store.  Many historians believe that the Van Avery Drug Store and the community activism that pursued inspired the birthplace of the Kalamazoo Civil Rights movement in Kalamazoo.   The purchase of the building was made possible with funding from Gilmore, Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Dorothy Dalton, and Raskob Foundation. ESC received its 501c3 designation by the IRS in 1998.

  • 36 years ago, St. Augustine Cathedral established a program through its Outreach Committee.   1983


  • 27 years ago, the organization purchased the building at 702 North Burdick. 1992


  • 21 years ago, the organization officially received IRS status as a nonprofit with a 501 C 3 designation.   1998

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