Willkie House, Inc. was established in September of 1917. It initially served as an extension of the War Recreation Board for Black Officers at Fort Des Moines. It is, therefore, one of the oldest African–American community-based organizations in Iowa, and one of the few remaining “settlement houses” existing in America.
In addition to providing recreation and social activities, the War Recreation Board also managed and directed the Colored Community Services Center.
These services included offering apartment referrals, food assistance, and employment placement assistance. The Center was also regularly utilized as a meeting place for community organizations such as the local chapter of the NAACP. In 1920 the name was changed to the Community Center of Des Moines and in 1933 the name was changed to the Negro Community Center.
Under the leadership of Mrs. Lillian Edmunds (1922-1955), the first and longest-serving Executive Director, Willkie House placed its focus on preparing young people for the achievement of a greater future than their predecessors.
The Board adopted the African proverb motto:
It takes a village to raise a child.
In 1945, after decades of delivering quality services for young people, a donation was given to the Center to erect a new building. This donation was made possible through the generosity of Wendell Willkie, the Gardner Cowles Foundation, and several other prominent donors. It was suggested that a plague be placed in the new facility in honor of Mr. Willkie. The board of directors of the center chose to instead name the new structure Willkie House, Inc. in honor of Mr. Willkie.
After successfully overcoming the many hurdles of building restrictions and numerous code changes, the new building was completed in 1951 with an additional expansion completed in 1983.
Today Willkie House typically serves over 375 youth and their families during the fiscal year, which runs from July 1st through June 30th. Participants in the Willkie House programming range from five to 18 years of age, with the majority of these participants coming from low-income families. The ethnic backgrounds of the participants mirror the ethnic makeup of the greater Des Moines community, with the majority being children and families of color.
The Willkie House is located at 900 17th Street. As a mission-driven organization, our programs center on the direct services outlined in our mission statement.
It should be noted that when the need arises, referrals are made for participants and their families in order to connect them to community agencies or organizations with the expertise needed to address any issues and or concerns.