Archive photo of children getting their teeth checked
Feb 13, 2018

Black History Month: Remembering the YMCA’s African-American Pioneers

The United States has celebrated Black History Month every February since 1976, when President Gerald Ford finally made official the movement spearheaded by historian Carter G. Woodson in the 1920s. But to understand how African-Americans made the YMCA into what it is today, you have to go back much further in time.

The Early Days

In 1853, a former slave and civic leader in Washington, D.C. named Anthony Bowen (pictured left)—who was also the first black employee of the US Patent Office—founded the first YMCA for African-Americans at a time when most organizations were deeply segregated. Over the next century, hundreds of African-American leaders walked through the doors of the “Twelfth Street YMCA.” It’s where Langston Hughes lived while working as a hotel busboy, where Thurgood Marshall planned his strategy for Brown vs. Board of Education and where NBA legend Elgin Baylor learned how to play basketball.

But the Twelfth Street YMCA wasn’t alone for long. The president of Sears Roebuck and Company in Chicago, Julius Rosenwald, donated over $600,000 to build 26 YMCAs in 25 cities. By the mid-1920s, there were 28,000 African-American Y members at 51 city YMCAs and 128 college chapters.

One of those "Rosenwald Ys" was the Wabash Avenue YMCA right here in Chicago, a pivotal social center where African Americans who came to Chicago during the Great Migration were provided with housing and job training. In 1915, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was founded at the Wabash Avenue YMCA, which also provided African-American soldiers with food and lodging during both World Wars.

Civil Rights

In 1931, the YMCA's World Conference condemned racial discrimination and passed a resolution to end segregation, since "racial and cultural variations offer an opportunity for enrichment of culture through fellowship across racial and cultural lines." However, a few associations in the United States—particularly in the Jim Crow South—completely ignored the resolution.

So the National Council of YMCAs passed a resolution in 1946 ordering all associations to “eliminate all racial discriminations" and remove racial designations from all its publications. Even then, some associations dragged their feet, or changed their policies in name only. In response, the director of a YMCA in Brooklyn, Russell N. Service, organized a walk-out at the Association of YMCA Secretaries (AOS)’s national meeting in 1953 to protest continuing discrimination at some Y branches.

The very next year, the AOS elected its first African-American president, Leo Marsh (pictured left), and over the next two decades, the YMCA established the Commission on Interracial Policies and Programs, as well as the Committee for Interracial Advance, which studied demographics and policies across the country and recommended improvements. Finally, in 1967 all local associations were required to change their membership policies to ensure no “discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin," or else face the revocation of their YMCA charter.

A New Era

In 1968, the director of a YMCA in Houston, Quentin Mease, founded the Black Achievers Program to provide African-American youth with positive role models. Three years later, Leo Marsh opened his own chapter of the program at his YMCA in Harlem, and dozens of other YMCAs followed suit, including the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Achievers Program. Today, our youth development and social responsibility initiatives—like Youth Safety and Violence Prevention’s Urban Warriors and Story Squad programs—would not have been possible without the dedicated, passionate, inclusive work of the YMCA’s African-American pioneers throughout the organization’s history. This month—and every month—we remember them, and we thank them.