During Black History Month and throughout the year, at the Y we are proud of the African Americans that have been apart of the rich YMCA history. One of the first YMCAs was also one of the earliest African-American organizations in the United States. Former slave Anthony Bowen founded a black YMCA in Washington D.C. in 1853. It was the first nonchurch black institution in America at that time. In 1896, there were 60 active Ys for Black Americans, and by 1924, membership grew to 28,000 members across 160 Ys for Black Americans.
In 1911, African American educator and author Booker T. Washington was the main speaker at the YMCA’s 53rd anniversary dinner in which he praised the founding of the Wabash Y: “…This YMCA building branch for our people will come further, in my opinion, in helping the Negro young man in finding himself, to articulate himself, in its civilization, than any other movement that has been stared in the city of Chicago…”.
Black History Month has roots in the Y. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson organized the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History at the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago, leading to the creation of Negro History Week in 1926 and eventually Black History Month. Today, Woodson’s group is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the Wabash Avenue YMCA is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Throughout its more than 160 years in the United States, the Y has worked to meet the changing needs of our diverse communities and provide welcoming and safe spaces where people of all backgrounds can come together to create positive social change. Along the way, the Y has been privileged to support African-American leaders who moved our country forward.
Black History Month has roots associated with the YMCA. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a University of Chicago alumnus, arrived in Chicago for to attend a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Inspired by this three-week celebration where thousands of African Americans had travelled from across the country to see exhibits that highlighted the progress of their people since the end of slavery, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago with a small group and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). This began the foundation that would create Negro History and Literature Week, renamed Negro Achievement Week, later Negro History Week and eventually Black History Month.
Woodson wanted the study of past black life to have significant impact stating, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” It is important to note that the focus of Black History month has been on black achievements since enslavement in the US, however, Woodson’s intent was to explore modern black history as a starting point to deeper exploration beyond the arrival of enslaved Africans in the Americas.
To celebrate and honor this tradition, the Y of Greater Seattle will offer cultural fitness workshops throughout the month taught by authentic artists living in the Seattle area with roots in South America, Africa and the Caribbean. Their teaching styles blend movement and physical activity with an oral history of the originating culture.