Roots of Black History Month Began at the YMCA

Community

In 1853, Anthony Bowen, a former slave, minister, and the first person of color to work in the United States Patent Office, founded the nation’s first YMCA dedicated to serving African-Americans. Becoming part of a movement that sought personal and community growth through healthy spirit, mind, and body, Bowen began an effort that has continued to enrich the diversity and spirit of the nation’s 2,500 YMCAs. 

In Austin, as in more than 10,000 communities across the country, the YMCA of Austin celebrates the richness of that diversity. 

“For more than 160 years, African-Americans have shared in the historic mission of the YMCA, providing leadership and making the YMCA Movement stronger, richer and better,” said Kathy Kuras, YMCA of Austin President & CEO. “We owe so much to the struggles of those who have fought for equity and equality, but there’s still a lot more work to be done and issues to be addressed. As we continue forward, the Y will remain an open, inclusive, and safe space working to serve and represent our diverse communities.”

The YMCA of Austin was founded in 1953 and, today serves over 35,000 members with health & wellness and enrichment programming through nine branches in Travis and Hays counties. In addition, the YMCA of Austin provides afterschool child care at nearly 50 elementary schools across multiple school districts. As a volunteer-led nonprofit organization, the Austin Y provided more than $2.5 in financial assistance to area neighbors in 2019.

The Honorable Wilhelmina Delco is just one of the thousands who frequent the Austin Y. A founding member of the East Communities YMCA, she is a regular in the Y’s water exercise classes along with a group of women who go by the nickname of “The Divas.” Ms. Delco exemplifies the spirt of equality and hope at the Y, having become the first Black person elected in an at-large race in Travis County that put her in the Texas Legislature for 10 terms. She is a founding member of the Austin Community College Board and the namesake of numerous civic buildings in the state. You can read more about Ms. Delco here.

Today, the YMCA of Austin continues to promote equity and equality through a variety of programs. YMCA Youth & Government teaches civic engagement to middle- and high-school students through hands-on participation in mock legislative, judicial, and media activities. More than 650 youth from across Texas recently convened for the first-ever virtual State Youth & Government Conference, where students debated issues and proposed legislation in a respectful, civil environment.

The YMCA of Austin has also partnered with Austin Health Commons and Austin Community College for a series of Racial Healing & Transformation Circles. In mid-January, participants convened a virtual conversation to bring about transformational and sustainable change, and to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism. During the events, participants are invited to share their truths and hear stories, and in doing so, to develop a deeper understanding of others who may be perceived as different.

The Austin Y is also working to promote educational equity through the free Early Learning Readiness (ELR) program. In this grant-funded program, children ages 2-4 to play and learn while developing the physical, verbal, and social skills they’ll need to start school ready to succeed. ELR is geared toward families without access to other early learning opportunities and is offered virtually in English and Spanish.

Additional YMCA milestones in African-American history include:

  • In 1900, black communities started 21 African-American YMCAs with 53 college chapters.
  • In 1915, an association organized in Chicago to “study Negro Life,” led to the creation by the Wabash YMCA of a Negro History Week—the forerunner of today’s Black History Month. 
  • By the mid-1920s, in a still segregated era, there were 28,000 black members at 51 city YMCAs and 128 chapters at African-American colleges around the country.  These facilities received wide support from millionaire industrialists George Foster Peabody, John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co.
  • YMCAs provided service to both black and white troops, even though the U.S. Army remained racially segregated. 
  • In 1919, YMCAs established an Interracial Commission to assist black troops returning home from World War I.  “Rosenwald” YMCA buildings served 25 African-American communities, including clean, safe dorm rooms and eating facilities that were a boon to African-American travelers—especially servicemen—who were on the road during a segregated and discriminatory era.  After World War II, there was increased emphasis on eliminating racial segregation in YMCAs.
  • In 1946, the YMCA national office urged existing YMCAs, each one an independent association, to eliminate racial discrimination, and new YMCAs were organized on an interracial basis.
  • The YMCA national body officially banned segregation in 1967.

While segregated facilities for blacks and whites are a thing of the past, during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, black YMCAs served as a positive gathering place for leaders of the movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Rev. Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Congressman John Lewis.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Doles
All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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