Wabash YMCA

Posted on August 17th, 2011 by

The creation of the Rosenwald Schools was Julius Rosenwald’s most enduring act of philanthropy in the African American community but it was not his first. In 1910, two years before he began working with Booker T. Washington to build black schools in the South, Rosenwald was involved in a variety of efforts to address the issues faced by the black community in Chicago. The construction of the Wabash YMCA in Bronzeville was one earliest of these efforts and one of the most important.

The building of the YMCA occurred during a time in Rosenwald’s life when his concerns about racial injustice were just beginning to coalesce. In 1910 Paul J. Sachs sent Rosenwald copies of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery and John Graham Brook’s An American Citizen: The Life of William H Baldwin Jr.  This proved to be a galvanizing moment in Julius Rosenwald’s life. After reading these books Rosenwald felt compelled to address the social and economic inequalities that plagued African Americans.

When Rosenwald was approached by Wilbur Messer, the general secretary of the Chicago Branch of the YMCA, in 1910 about building a black YMCA Rosenwald was so inspired by these books that he gave a $25,000 donation to help build a YMCA for African Americans in Chicago.  He also promised to give $25,000 to any community in the country that wanted to build a black Y and could raise $75,000. Rosenwald also required that a substantial portion of this money had to come from the black community because he felt that it was important for black people to play an active role in the process; Rosenwald was ideologically opposed to handouts of any kind. Within a year Los, Angeles, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia and of course Chicago had all met Rosenwald’s demands and were in the process of building black YMCA’s—all of the cities would eventually build the Y’s though it would take some cities more than a decade.

There were two principle reasons why Rosenwald supported the construction of the YMCA. For one, Rosenwald had made contributions to local Hyde Park YMCA for a number of years and had long been a supporter of the organization. Moreover, at this time many if not most YMCAs in both the North and the South were segregated, and there were few recreational and community centers for blacks. Rosenwald realized that the creation of a YMCA for African Americans was a practical way that he could improve the lives of ordinary black Chicagoans.

Despite the fact that the Y was segregated–an integrated YMCA at this point in time probably would have been impossible—Julius Rosenwald truly believed that the Y could be a stepping stone to better relations between blacks and whites. Julius Rosenwald gave a speech during the opening YMCA where he spoke about the importance of overcoming racism.  “The man who hates the black man because he is black has the same spirit as he who hates the poor man because he is poor. It is the spirit of caste. I am the inferior of any many whose rights I trample underfoot.”  A year later he would echo that statement in an article for the YMCA newsletter in which he claimed that the partnership of blacks and whites to build the Y was “evidence that the contact of the white and Negro races will surely lead to a better understanding of both.”

Soon after the Y opened it became essential to the black southerners that came to Chicago during the Great Migration. The Wabash Y was built during the beginning of the First Great Migration where more than one million African Americans left the Jim Crow South to move to the North. These African American migrants settled in urban centers both in the Northeast corridor and in the Midwest. Huge numbers of African Americans ended up in Chicago because of the industrial job opportunities and its location on the railroads  (African American migration can be traced along the railways).  Many white Chicagoans were hostile to blacks—this hostility reaches its apex in the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. In this context the Wabash Y’s most important function was to ease the difficult transition of these newly arrived black migrants.

Over the years the Wabash YMCA became haven for African American Chicagoans and was a vital community institutions. Inside the Y blacks could escape from their hardships and participate in the wide variety of educational and recreational activities. Black patrons attended lectures, bible studies, music performances, and played athletics.  Great athletes such as Joe Louis would train in the YMCA, which provided some of the only athletic facilities to blacks and often was often the center of organized sports.

However the Y was utilized for much more than leisure; the Y provided a number of essential services to the residents of Bronzeville. Many black workers received their paychecks at the Y. There were no hotels in Bronzeville so black visitors and people who did not have any other place to stay were able to take refuge in the Y.  The Y also offered professional training to black migrants, most of who had been involved in agriculture and needed to learn new skills in order to gain employment in industry. During the Chicago Race Riots The Y administered aid and shelter to the black people who were injured or were in need of refuge.

The Wabash Y also became an important part of black intellectual culture in Chicago. It houses a mural painted by William Edouard Scott, one of Chicago’s most important early 20th century black painters.  Moreover it was at this YMCA where Carter G Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History: a pioneering organization that studied African American History and the conditions of black people. Woodson and the Association would be instrumental in the creation of Black History Month in 1926.

Like the neighborhood in which it was located the Wabash Y fell under hard times during the 1970s and eventually closed its doors. However in recent years there has been an effort to rebuild and preserve the historic landmark. The community raised over $9,000,000 to reopen the Y and in 2002 it received a National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Y which Julius Rosenwald helped financed has also been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as one of Chicago’s most important landmarks because of its contribution to the African American community. Nearly 100 years after it was created the YMCA which Rosenwald helped build still serves the purpose Rosenwald intended for it: to improve the lives of both African Americans and the Bronzeville community.