Born out of the racial crisis and unrest that gripped the Twin Cities and the nation five decades ago, a community center devoted to the needs of young black people was founded on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis.

The Way became ground zero for Minnesota's fledgling black liberation movement, embraced by young activists who saw it as a generator of black pride and chastised by critics who blamed it for fomenting disturbances.

More than 30 years after its demise, The Way's 50th anniversary will be celebrated Saturday by its founders and supporters.

"We considered ourselves part of the black power movement," said Mahmoud El-Kati, 79, who taught classes on African-American history at The Way at a time when there were no such courses at colleges, let alone in public schools. "We wore 'Black Power' on our T-shirts and 'Black is Beautiful' on the back of them. We wanted to help our people become independent from the doctrine of white supremacy."

The Way became a must-stop for some of the nation's most prominent black figures, including soul singer James Brown, boxer Muhammad Ali and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes.

"People would come into town and ask, 'Where is the black community?' and we were the only thing that fit the description," recalled Verlena Matey-Keke, 72, who was hired as an administrative assistant at The Way when it was founded in 1966. Long gone but not forgotten, The Way became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement last fall when demonstrators protesting the north-side police shooting death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark. They demanded that The Way be reinstated, replacing the Fourth Precinct police station which sits on the original site of The Way.

Born from struggle

The 1960s were a volatile time for race relations in America, with a vigorous civil rights movement transitioning to a more nationalist black power focus.

From 1964 to 1966 riots occurred in several American cities, generated by unemployment, discrimination and a sense of hopelessness in many black urban communities.

There had been smaller disturbances in Minneapolis, and a bigger one in 1966 where store windows were broken on the north side. Whites called it a riot.

"I'd call it a rebellion," said Matey-Keke. "It wasn't just a random act of violence. It was a striking back at the origin of violence — oppression."

Longtime activist Spike Moss, 71, said the "so-called riot" led to a meeting of a couple hundred black people in a north-side park, attended by Mayor Art Naftalin and Gov. Karl Rolvaag. There were complaints about discrimination, police brutality and a lack of jobs for youth.

"We asked for a place we could call our own," Moss said. "We wanted a youth center that belonged to young people." The response was quick. "Six hundred jobs came out of the sky to employ young Negroes," said civil rights activist, Ron Edwards, 77.

Naftalin, a white liberal DFLer, worked to round up financing and support from several key figures in the white establishment.

Some $90,000 was raised to buy and renovate Fishing Unlimited, an old fishing market at 1913 Plymouth Av.

Syl Davis, a director of a small nonprofit youth program, became its first executive director. Gwyn Jones-Davis, his wife, was program director at The Way.

"She was the brains behind it," Edwards said. "She was the person the young people loved."

Moss ran the recreation program. Willie Mae Dixon worked as a tireless advocate for young people in the court system.

The classes El-Kati taught inspired young people, some of whom participated in the 1969 occupation of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota that led to the creation of a black studies program at the U. El-Kati's signature is one of six on the founding document.

Up and coming musicians practiced in a backroom of The Way, among them Prince Rogers Nelson.

A new generation

In July 1967, there was another outbreak of unrest on Plymouth Av. A Hennepin County grand jury concluded that The Way was not responsible but accused it of coddling troublemakers. Rolland Robinson, then a minister at Calvary Methodist Church, and president of The Way's board, said this week the grand jury report was untrue and "part of the racism of the time." Now under fire, The Way found it harder to get funding and programs were slashed. Syl Davis resigned as director in 1970, replaced by Bert Davis, who was no relation.

Bert Davis announced The Way would no longer be "just a black-oriented thing" and would actively seek participation of all community members regardless of race.

A new building opened, but never operated, and eventually became the home of City Inc. in the 1990s, which worked to stem gang violence.

During the demonstrations in the fall that centered at the Fourth Precinct, the protests waged over allegations of police misconduct seemed to mirror the conflicts that brought The Way into existence half a century ago. This weekend Matey-Keke hopes to bring a new generation of young people the story of The Way.

"Our history is so ignored and suppressed," she said. "I feel compelled to use my energy to expose our accomplishments to young people, that they may be inspired."

The celebration of The Way will take place from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, 2001 Plymouth Av. N., Minneapolis.

Randy Furst• 612-673-4224

Twitter: @randyfurst