In 1853, Anthony Bowen, a former slave, minister and fi rst person of color to work in the United States Patent Office, founded the nation’s first YMCA dedicated to serving African Americans. The YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee began honoring diversity and serving the needs of African- Americans in the 1930s. In Milwaukee, as in more than 10,000 communities across the country, the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee celebrates the richness of that diversity. 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 2,617 YMCAs.
In honor of Black History Month, the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee’s Black Achievers program hosted the Annual Black Achievers Heritage Bowl on Thursday, February 25 at the Northside YMCA located at 1350 West North Avenue. The Heritage Bowl is a competition between students in the Black Achievers program. They participate in teams and answer questions related to significant moments in Black History.
“For more than 150 years, African American men and women have shared in the historic mission of the YMCAs, providing leadership and making the YMCA stronger, richer and better,” said Antoinette Mensah, Emerging Leaders director at the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. “At the YMCA, we are proud—and a more diverse institution—because we serve people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
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 it is unthinkable today to imagine segregated facilities for blacks and whites, 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.