Presbyterian Community Center

Historical marker #2589 commemorates the Presbyterian Community Center, formerly the Presbyterian Colored Mission. Here, a young Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, met and trained with Fred Stoner.

While Joe Martin of the Columbia Gym (Historic Marker #2592) is known for guiding a young Ali through the early stages of his career in the sport of boxing, Ali credited Fred Stoner, the Center’s club director, with teaching him skills and techniques. Stoner taught and organized competitive sports including boxing, basketball, roller skating, and wrestling. Two of Stoner’s other protégées Ruddell Stitch and Jimmy Ellis would also find renown in the boxing world. Ellis would hold the World Heavy Weight Champion title for two years in the late sixties—at the same time Ali was banned from the sport due to his refusal to report for selective service during the Vietnam War on moral and religious grounds. Stitch fought his way to second place in the welterweight class before dying tragically attempting to rescue a man who had fallen in the Ohio River while fishing.

The building that housed the Presbyterian Community Center was built in 1929 at the corner of Roselane Court and Hancock Street in the heart of Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood (Historic Marker #1985). An additional structure was added to the property shortly after at Hancock and Lampton.

The institution that became the Presbyterian Community Center was founded in 1899 by John Little. At the time Little, a white Alabamian, had just completed his education at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary (now the Louisville Seminary). Then called the Presbyterian Colored Mission, it provided vocational training for men, training in domestic work for women, Sunday school services, and worship services. At the time, the Smoketown neighborhood lacked many amenities and basic aspects of urban infrastructure. While schools for African American students existed, there was limited public support for them.

Much like the original name, the limited but well-intentioned instruction offered by the institution was rooted in the prejudices of many white people at the time. Little’s mission offered vocational training, not academic instruction, to the residents of the Smoketown neighborhood because philanthropic white people believed that poor African American would not excel in higher education, only trades and domestic work.

Over the years the profile and offerings of the Center changed. It was during the late 1950s that a young Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, would sneak across town to train with Fred Stoner in the evenings. Over the years the profile and offerings of the Center changed. In the 1965, the facility was known as “Grace Hope.” The name was a reference to the combination of two Smoketown neighborhood Presbyterian congregations.

The Presbyterian Community Center relocated in 2001 to a new facility and closed completely in 2013. In 2014, Louisville Metro Housing Authority took ownership of the historic structures and began renovation. Today the building on South Hancock Street contains 32 affordable housing units and office space. In 2018 the Smoketown Family Community Wellness Center moved into space on the ground floor. The Wellness center provides pediatric clinical services as well as family programming aimed at promoting health and wellness.

The marker reads:

Presbyterian Community Center

The Presbyterian Community Center
was founded in 1898 on Preston
Street by Rev. John Little. It was
Louisville’s first African
American Mission Sunday school. A
second location on Hancock Street
opened in 1902. The Centers were
known as Hope and Grace. They
merged in 1965 at the Hancock
location and officially branded
as Presbyterian Community Center.

Presbyterian Community Center

From 1954-57, Muhammad Ali, then
Cassius Clay, trained every Monday,
Wednesday, and Friday with Grace
Presbyterian Church Director of
Recreation Fred Stoner. Ali
credited Stoner with teaching him
how to box. Stoner trained boxing
greats Ali, Jimmy Ellis, and
Rudell Stitch. In 1960, Stoner
became the first African American
appointed to KY Boxing Commission.

This marker was dedicated on June 8, 2019.