6 Interesting Things You May Not Know About African Americans and the YMCA

For more than 166 years, African Americans have made significant contributions to the YMCA. This February, as we recognize Black History Month and celebrate the achievements and contributions African Americans have made to America’s history, we are sharing a few facts to highlight the roles African Americans have played in the YMCA, including our YMCA of Metro Atlanta association.

Black History Month has roots connected with the YMCA.

In 1915, in the Southside of Chicago at the Wabash YMCA in Bronzeville, the Father of Negro History, Carter G. Woodson, gathered with a small group of African-American intellectuals and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which later led to the creation and establishment of Negro History Week in 1926. Negro History Week later grew into Black History Month, which was recognized nationally in 1976.

Former Slave Anthony Bowen organized the first African American YMCA.

In 1853, Anthony Bowen, a former slave, organized the first African American YMCA, the “YMCA for Colored Men and Boys” in Washington, D.C. Although social and economic conditions made it difficult for the movement to grow in the African American community, by the late 1860s, the movement gained a foothold and other associations were established in New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

“We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history,” Woodson wrote in 1927. “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race, hate, and religious prejudice…. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.”

The Butler Street YMCA was once a central meeting place for civil rights leaders.

Dr. Henry R. Butler, President of the Butler Street YMCA, was a pioneer in medicine and healthcare for African Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Butler Street YMCA, founded in 1894, operated until December 2012. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent part of his youth as a member there. The Butler Street YMCA played a major role in Atlanta’s history and was central in the story of African Americans in Atlanta and beyond. At one time, the Butler Street Y was even referred to as the “Black City Hall of Atlanta” and served as a hub for Atlanta’s civil rights leaders and political community.

“The Butler Street Y was the place that the true leadership of our community revolved around,” said longtime civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, as quoted in Neighbor News in 2012.  “These were the guys who made the political decisions, for the whole community. The big decisions were actually made at the Y.”

Edward Lee made Atlanta YMCA history as its first black professional.

In January 1970, the YMCA of Metro Atlanta employed its first black professional. Rev. Edward Lee, a former member of the Detroit YMCA staff, joined the Central Community Branch as program director. He pioneered the way for employment of other minority professionals and, over the years, made a major contribution to the work of the YMCA, helping develop the Association’s first outreach program.

Carolyn Creager created the YMCA’s first executive leadership development program for staff of color.

In 2006, Carolyn Creager, former Director of Multicultural Leadership Development at the YMCA of the USA, created the Multicultural Executive Development Institute (MEDI). This was the first national executive leader development program targeting staff of color. 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 hosted by MEDI graduates. The YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta YMCA hosted its first Regional EMLE Conference in October 2019.

Y-USA’s current President and CEO Kevin Washington is the first African American to lead the national office.

In February 2015, Kevin Washington became the first African American to lead the YMCA of USA (Y-USA), the national office of the 2,700 YMCAs in the U.S., as President and CEO. Washington got his start in the Y as Youth Program Director at the Philadelphia YMCA’s Christian Street branch in 1978. Prior to assuming the Chief Executive Officer role at Y-USA, Washington served as the President and CEO of the Y of Greater Boston for four years, the YMCA of Greater Hartford for 10 years, and previously held other executive roles with various Y associations across the country.