Before philanthropist Julius Rosenwald provided funding for rural schools for African-Americans, he initiated an equally successful program designed to aid the nation’s growing urban population of African-Americans. In a time when many blacks were migrating to industrial centers, the Young Men’s Christian Association played a valuable role by providing both interim housing for the new population (who were barred from most residential hotels due to segregation) and a community center in which to practice religion and physical fitness.
The Washington D.C. YMCA, located at 1816 12th Street NW, played this role for the vibrant African-American community around nearby U Street. Funding for the 12th Street YMCA was an early model for the kind of “challenge” grants Rosenwald would use to encourage local investment and increase the funding power of his philanthropy. The $100,000 building was funded in four equal parts; a grant from Rosenwald, a grant from John D. Rockefeller Sr., the central YMCA administration and most importantly, a significant contribution of $27,000 from the Washington D.C. black community. Around Christmas of 1911, after President Taft called his attention to the cause, Rosenwald presented the Washington YMCA with a personal gift of $25,000 that allowed the building to be complete and operational by April of 1912.
Using the Washington YMCA as a model, Rosenwald pledged $25,000 for the construction of similar buildings in any African-American community that could raise the additional funds as Washington’s had. Although these were segregated facilities, the partnership between the black and white communities in building these structures created, for Rosenwald, a “foundation for a better understanding of each other, promising much for the future,” (The Chicago Defender, 1913) and provided much needed service to the communities that housed them.
African-American branches of the YMCA had existed since before the Civil War, but they were often itinerant associations, meeting in temporary locations such as residences or churches. Washington D.C. became the first city to establish a YMCA for African-Americans when Anthony Bowen established the “Colored Young Men’s Christian Association” in 1853. Bowen’s YMCA initially met in his home and later in donated or rented spaces around the city.
As a permanent replacement for these temporary spaces, the modern and well-equipped 12th Street YMCA represented a bold step forward for both the black YMCA and the black community at large. The large building contained dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a barbershop, bowling alleys and a cafeteria. Its striking Renaissance Revival architecture stands out on 12th Street and the fact that it was designed by noted African-American architect and Tuskegee grad William Sidney Pittman made it an inspiring contribution to the community. Over the years, the 12th Street YMCA housed and hosted numerous famous visitors and residents of D.C., including Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, Charles Drew and Langston Hughes.
The 12th Street YMCA was the first building to be completed under Rosenwald’s program, but over the next 20 years, Rosenwald would go on to fund 23 similar buildings in black communities around the U.S. (such as Chicago’s Wabash Y). These buildings were invariably spacious, well-built structures that provided an aesthetic and spiritual anchor for the communities that commissioned them. Although some have fallen victim to urban renewal over the years, at least 15 are still standing, some still in use as YMCAs, others restored as community centers, museums, performing arts centers and affordable housing. The 12th Street YMCA was renovated and reopened as the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in early 2000 and continues to serve as event space and a community center for the U Street area.
By Michael Rose