|That They May All Be One: Diversity in the YMCA
YMCAs have interpreted their Christian mission in a practical way, including in their programs and outreach missions many groups excluded by others at the time. For example, long before the phrase cultural diversity was used, YMCAs were at work in the Great Plains with both the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux Indians.
U.S. Indian Ys first started in 1879, with the founding of a YMCA by Thomas Wakeman, a Dakota Indian, in Flandreau, S.D. The Dakota Indian associations were formally received into the state organization in 1885. By 1886 there were 10 Indian associations with a total of 156 members. By 1898 there were about 40 Indian associations, including several student YMCAs. The student department's interest in Indian work was fueled by James A. Garvie's presentation to the convention of 1886: Garvie, a Sioux, had translated the model college constitution of a student Y into the Sioux language.
The first Y employee hired to do Indian work full time was Charles Eastman, MD, a Sioux hired in 1895. Prior to that, however, the Kansas state association had engaged a native Indian missionary to work among his own people. In 1920 Indian efforts were overseen by the student department. By 1926 the number of Indian YMCAs was too small to include separately in the annual report. The General Convention of Sioux YMCAs in Dupree, SD, and the Mission Valley YMCA Family Center in Ronan, Mont., are the last YMCAs on reservations.
U.S. YMCAs serving Asians were first established in San Francisco to serve the large Chinese population there in 1875, although the YMCA in Portland, Ore., had opened a mission school and engaged a Chinese man to distribute religious tracts five years earlier. The Chinese were subjected to violent racism at this time, as witnessed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The secretaries of these Chinese Ys were natives of China who converted to Christianity. A Japanese YMCA was founded in San Francisco in 1917.
YMCAs in the African American community have a long and varied history. The first YMCA for blacks was founded in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, in Washington, D.C. It was the first nonchurch black institution in America, predating Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., by a year. In 1888, William Hunton became the first full-time black secretary in the YMCA movement, and in 1900, the first conference of black secretaries was held. In 1896 there were 60 active black Ys, 41 of which were student Ys at colleges (the first black student YMCA was formed in 1869 at Howard University, Washington, D.C.). By 1924, there were 160 black Ys with 28,000 members.
Twenty-five black YMCAs were built in 23 cities (there were three in New York City) as a result of a challenge grant program announced by Julius Rosenwald in 1910. Rosenwald promised $25,000 toward the construction of YMCAs in black communities if the community raised $75,000 over a five-year period. Adjusting for inflation, Rosenwald's grants would total about $10 million today. The effect of these Rosenwald Ys was keenly felt in the 1950s and '60s: YMCAs, being integral parts of the black community, played important roles in the struggle for civil rights.
YMCAs and Y leaders also played important roles in the fight for civil rights. In 1932, the student YMCAs voted to not hold meetings in states with Jim Crow laws. Eugene E. Barnett, head of the national YMCA organization during the 1940s, was a strong advocate of integrating YMCAs and full civil rights for minorities.
While YMCAs provided many proud firsts on racial matters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their track record was far from perfect. In the 1960s, some 300 YMCAs were still racially segregated, and a few left the movement rather than comply with the national organization's directive to integrate.
The YMCA also had a role in the creation of modern black historiography. Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D., a historian and the second African American to receive a doctorate in history from Harvard University, stayed at the Wabash Area YMCA in Chicago when he visited the city during the 1910s. During that era, formal and informal segregation limited blacks to only certain areas of the city. As a result, the Wabash Area Y became a major institution in serving the black neighborhood known as Bronzeville. It was there that Dr. Woodson and three friends met in 1915 to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The men felt that if whites learned more about blacks, race relations would improve. The association, and Dr. Woodson's later scholarship, were important vehicles in establishing the study of African American history as an accepted academic pursuit at all major colleges and universities. Dr. Woodson was also a practical man in addition to being a scholar: he knew that demonstrating the talents and accomplishments of blacks in America would help increase white regard for blacks. In 1926 he organized the first Negro History Week, held in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s it grew into Black History Month and is now celebrated throughout the country.
In the 1970s, Bronzeville deteriorated, the Wabash YMCA was closed and the building nearly torn down. Now the neighborhood is improving and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The early history of women in the YMCA is not well documented, although it is believed that the first female member of a YMCA joined in Brooklyn, NY, in the late 1850s. This is based on a statement by one observer in 1869 that Brooklyn had had women as members for half of its existence. The Brooklyn YMCA was founded in 1853. There were several female members, at least unofficially, by the 1860s. The Albany (NY) convention of 1866 went so far as to refuse to seat several women delegates, holding that representation at the convention had to be based on male membership. Ellen Brown, who was not only the first female employee of a YMCA but also the first Boy's Work secretary in the movement, was hired in 1886. By 1946, women accounted for 12 percent of the membership.
This is not to say that women were not active in YMCAs before the 1860s. Almost immediately after the founding of the YMCA in the United States in 1851, women taught classes, raised funds and functioned as a ladies aid society would in a church. These committees of women were largely informal, and official Ladies Auxiliaries were not formed until the 1880s. There is record of female members using YMCA gyms in 1881.
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