Archive photo of YMCA & Black Americans
Feb 26, 2021 - Indian Boundary YMCA

Black History and the YMCA: then and now

In times like these, when racial injustice and the work done to combat it are at the forefront of our national conversation, it is helpful to look at the YMCA’s history to remember how similar periods of turbulence, uncertainty, and difficulty have led to progress and evolution within our organization. As we near the close of Black History Month, it is important to recognize the profound impact Black staff, members, participants, and supporters have had on the YMCA.

Throughout the Y’s history, Black association leaders worked under adverse circumstances created by racism, finding strength in solidarity by establishing a network of autonomous African-American YMCAs. During an era of segregation, Black YMCAs served as spaces for self-determination and a source of immense community pride. Organizations such as choirs, mutual aid societies, and professional, fraternal, and civil rights groups would meet in these YMCA centers, transforming and sustaining their local communities through spiritual gatherings, economic empowerment, and civic engagement.

Meanwhile, YMCAs provided many African-American communities with facilities and programs no other urban institutions offered at that time. The association's recreation and sports programs launched the careers of many nationally known athletes, including Jesse Owens, John Woodruff, Dave Albritton, De Hart Hubbard, Eddie Tolan, and Edward Gordon. Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson not only belonged to the YMCA but for some time also coached boys at the Harlem association.

As we continue to grapple with many of the same issues today, our centers are proud to further the work Black YMCAs catalyzed throughout the Y’s history. We are committed to becoming a more multicultural, antiracist organization so that we may better and more equitably fulfill our mission to strengthen children, families, and communities.

Source: Light In The Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946 (2003, University Press of Kentucky)