The first YMCA established to serve African American people came into being in 1853, eight years before the American Civil War and ten years before the institution of slavery was officially ended in the United States. The principal founder was a formerly enslaved man, Anthony Bowen, who, with a group of friends, organized the "YMCA for Colored Men and Boys" in Washington, D.C.. It opened just nine years after the world's first YMCA was founded in London, England and less than two years after the first North American YMCAs were organized in Boston and Montreal.
Anthony Bowen [see image at left] was born into slavery in 1809. While a young man he purchased his freedom and went on to become the first Black clerk in the U.S. Patent Office.. Bowen first heard of the YMCA from a white co-worker, William Chauncy Langdon, a member of the board of the year-old Washington YMCA for white men and boys. With Black people barred from membership in many organizations of the day, including the Washington DC YMCA, Bowen decided that a "Black YMCA" was needed.
Although founded in 1853, this early association was officially incorporated on 6 June 1892. Its first building at Twelfth Street, N.W. in Washington D.C. was dedicated on 12 May 1912, with African American citizens of Washington contributing $27,000 toward the cost, and an additional $25,000 coming from John Rockefeller Sr.. In 1972, its name was changed from Twelfth Street YMCA to the Anthony Bowen Branch YMCA in honor of its founder and first president. Today the building is the home of the Thurgood Marshall Center.
As Anthony Bowen's work in the 1850s indicates, African Americans were eager to embrace the mission of the YMCA early on, but racial discrimination and the resulting depressed social and financial conditions for Black people made it difficult for the movement to grow very quickly. Nevertheless, by the late 1860s, the movement found a firm foothold in the community with associations established in New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Harrisburg, Pa. In 1867, E. V. C. Eato of New York City became the first Black delegate to attend the YMCA's annual convention.
In 1875, the Black community in Norfolk, Va. established a YMCA, and in 1888, William A. Hunton [see image near right] became the first full-time, paid director of an African-American YMCA. The son of an enslaved man who had purchased his own freedom and a Canadian native, Hunton had previously been active in the Ottawa YMCA, eventually becoming chairman of its Boys' Work Department. In Norfolk Hunton organized debating societies, educational classes, athletic work, a choral club, a Bible study group, and a library. In 1889, he hired Jesse Moorland [see image far right] as his assistant.
In 1890, the national YMCA office created a "Colored Men's Department." Hunton's successful leadership in Norfolk led to his appointment in 1890 as the first secretary of that department, and the first Black man employed by the International Committee of the YMCA. When Hunton retired in 1916, Moorland succeeded him as senior secretary until his own retirement in 1924. Channing H. Tobias took over the role until the department was dissolved in 1946.
Hunton and Moorland assembled a staff of talented young men who carried the Y mission to Black communities across the country. Building sound programs from the ground up, they were major contributors to the Black self-help movement. Although the separate YMCAs were created because racist policies prevalent in many areas precluded integration, they served an important role in their communities. Programs were similar to those of other Ys: Bible study, moral and religious improvement, adult education (business and management courses were especially popular), physical education and organized sports. Black associations housed lending libraries and built pools and gyms. While segregated associations were the result of systemic racism in the YMCA movement, Black YMCAs also became what one Y leader called "educational and spiritual oases" -- secure places where members could discuss prominent public issues of the day without having to mute expression of their views as African Americans. By the mid-1920s, 51 city YMCAs and an additional 128 college chapters for African American students had been established, with 28,000 members nationwide. [Image at left: First YMCA building for African American men and boys, 132 West 53rd Street, New York, 1901]
[Image above: YMCA bible study class in Alcorn, Miss., ca. 1918]
The establishment of Black Ys received a boost from a pledge in 1910 by Julius Rosenwald [see image at right], president of Sears Roebuck Company, to donate $25,000 to any African American urban community that could raise $75,000 for the construction of a Y facility. Over the next two decades, Rosenwald grants helped build 26 Ys in 25 cities. While raising the matching funds, African American leaders canvased their communities and collaborated, to varying degrees, with the local white community who saw in these efforts a way to promote social stability. Many of these "Rosenwald Ys" included dormitory rooms and eating facilities where visitors of color could find clean, safe accommodations, free of the demeaning exclusion that was the rule of Jim Crow. During the two World Wars, such facilities proved a haven for African American servicemen denied shelter and restaurant service elsewhere in a segregated society.
The struggle for civil and human rights in the YMCA has continued from its early beginnings. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the integration of young African Americans in associations that served white communities was fraught with hazard. Local customs, overt the South but evidenced nationwide, worked against inclusion. Conservative interests were determined not to integrate. Community patterns of separation overrode authentic longings on both sides for open Christian and democratic fellowship. On either side of the racial divide, liberals drifted into a strategy of conforming to established norms while trying to advance interracial understanding through conferences and national committee work. Many African American leaders, moreover, knew the advantages that autonomy provided for their constituents and were understandably eager to maintain that autonomy. [Image at left: National Colored Work Conference held in Cincinnati, Ohio, 4 December 1921]
Opportunities for change came in the interwar era of the 1920s and 30s. A younger generation, better educated and more socially mobile than many of their elders, resisted admonitions to be patient. The impulse toward integration was especially strong on campuses. At the University of Minnesota in the mid-1930s, an integrated student YMCA played a major role in persuading the board of regents to open dormitories to students of all races.
International work also fueled the fight for integration. From missions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America came seasoned Y secretaries who had found a career-- and a cause -- in crusades for social justice, peace, and world brotherhood. Many of them had turned to a Social Gospel that called, along with conversion to Christianity, for regeneration and reconciliation. Their experience abroad made these young men more aware of the diversity of the world and more critical of the YMCA’s role in American colonialism at home and abroad. Delegates to the YMCA's World Conference in 1931 unanimously passed a resolution condemning racial discrimination and calling for an end to segregation in the YMCA, concluding that "racial and cultural variations offer an opportunity for enrichment of culture through fellowship across racial and cultural lines." In the Christian spirit, they felt, lay the source of the "supreme value of the personality of every man." In response to the World Alliance resolution, the National Council, at its next annual convention, "urged all associations to moved forward in remedying this condition of interracial inequality and injustice as rapidly as possible." Local associations that discriminated against Black people ignored the resolution. [Image at right: Black servicemen in France during World War I]
With the Great Depression came a shrinkage of YMCA resources. Local Ys coped by reducing staff and cutting back on programs -- tactics particularly hard on African American associations that had suffered historically from underfunding. But the climate shifted with World War II and the forging of national unity. African American Y leaders joined in a strategy known as "Double V": victory for democracy in the world, through military action, and at home, through the breaking of segregation. Having fought in two wars to make the world safe for democracy, they were no longer willing to accept accommodation and gradualism.
Segregation of YMCAs as a national policy ended in 1946 when the National Council passed a resolution calling for local associations to "work steadfastly toward the goal of eliminating all racial discriminations," dissolved its Colored Work Department and abolished racial designations in all its publications. These changes were accepted and adopted at varying degrees and speeds at the local and national levels. During the next thirty to forty years, a variety of programs and committees were established to monitor and promote the process of integration and the progress of racial equality within the movement, as well as to identify and address the unmet needs of African American and other non-white people served by the organization.
The civil rights activism (and also the resistance to it) that was taking place throughout the United States during mid-twentieth century was mirrored within the YMCA movement. Despite the resolution of 1946, segregation persisted at the local level in many areas, and staff members experienced discrimination at the national level. In 1953, Russell N. Service, Executive Director of the Bedford Branch YMCA in Brooklyn, led a brief walk-out from a national meeting of the Association of YMCA Secretaries (AOS) to protest the organization's prejudice and lack of involvement of African American professional staff.
In 1954, Leo Marsh was elected as the first African American president of the AOS. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the YMCA established committees such as the Commission on Interracial Policies and Program and the Committee for Interracial Advance to study and review facts, and to make recommendations for change. This work culminated, in 1967, in the adoption of a resolution that required all local associations to annually certify that "their policies and practices provide that eligibility for membership or participation in programs shall be without any discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin" as a condition of membership. Unfortunately, despite progress made during the 1950s and 1960s, in 1968 the YMCA still counted 20 local associations practicing segregation, and when segregated branches were closed, studies showed that only token numbers of African Americans were appointed to staff positions and recruited to serve on boards and committees in those "integrated" associations.
The National Conference of Black and Non-White YMCA Laymen and Staff, known as BAN-WYS, was founded in November 1968 by Leo Marsh, Meridith Matthews, Dunbar Reed, Gordon Rowe, William McAllister, and other YMCA staff members who were disenchanted with the persistence of segregation and other discriminatory practices in some areas of the YMCA movement and frustrated with the inaction of the YMCA's white leadership. Far too many African American staff were leaving the movement because there was no room at the top of the profession for them and, the group agreed that the biggest stumbling block for YMCAs was personal and institutional racism. What began as an ad hoc group developed into an organized network to provide support and representation to non-white YMCA staff members, raise awareness within the movement about the negative effects of certain personnel practices and policies on non-white YMCA staff, and foster commitment to utilizing the leadership resources of other Black and non-white laymen. In 1978 the group led the planning of the national office's year-long 125th anniversary celebration of African American service to the YMCA. [Photo at right: BAN-WYS leaders, 1970]
The development of YMCA facilities, programs, services, and staff continued to expand throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Associations serving primarily African American communities changed with the times, creating service programs that reflected organizations national priorities: camping, family counseling, health and hygiene, organized activities for youth and the elderly, and clubs for boys and girls. In 1968, Quentin Mease, executive director of the South Central YMCA of Houston, Texas, started the Black Achievers Program to raise funds and provide adult role models for the youth in his community. Leo Marsh adopted Mease's program at the Harlem YMCA of New York, where it grew to national prominence. [Photo at left: Dodgers baseball players Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson with members of the Harlem YMCA. The two men started jobs as physical directors at the YMCA in November 1948.]
A variety of factors including demographic changes and institutional racism (which BAN-YWS sought to shed light on) led to many of the YMCAs established in Black communities during the 19th and early 20th centuries being closed or abandoned during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In spite of this trend, the national office continued to seek out strategies to better meet the needs of African Americans. In 1997, the YMCA initiated its Strong Communities Agenda, focusing on providing programs serving low-income, under-served, and disadvantaged communities. In 2003, YMCA Black Achievers and Minority Achievers programs ran in nearly 200 YMCAs around the country.
While the number of African American staff in the YMCA continued to grow throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, the inequities in management and executive roles persisted. In 2006, Carolyn Creager, Y-USA's Director of Multicultural Leadership Development, created the Multicultural Executive Development Institute (MEDI), the first national executive leader development program targeting staff of color offered by Y-USA. A few years later in 2010, the first Emerging Multicultural Leadership Experience (EMLE), a professional development and networking program for multicultural YMCA staff of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, was developed and held by graduates of MEDI. That same year, the American YMCA movement approved a revision to the National Council Constitution to support a variety of antidiscrimination laws, update the list of protected classes, and affirm the Y's commitment to diversity and inclusion. The appointment of Kevin Washington [see image at right] as CEO in 2015 marked the the first time that the YMCA of the USA was led by an African American (or a person of color).
As of 2020, there were only three remaining historically independent YMCAs serving predominantly African American communities (Dearborn YMCA, Mobile Alabama; Dryades YMCA, New Orleans, Louisiana; and West Broad Street YMCA, Savannah, Georgia). Four others closed or merged into larger metropolitan YMCAs in the previous 15 years (Butler Street YMCA, Atlanta, Georgia; Cannon Street YMCA, Charleston, South Carolina; Garner Road YMCA, Raleigh, North Carolina; and William A. Hunton Family YMCA, Norfolk, Virginia).
This text was originally written in 2003 in conjunction with the 150th Anniversary Celebration of African American Service in the YMCA. It was amended and updated by YMCA Archives staff in fall 2020. In addition to adding information on relevant events after 2003, in some cases language was changed to reflect more current and respectful terminology (e.g. “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”).