Last week, in an article about the continuing relevance of the Jewish community in presidential politics, Tablet Magazine brought up some of the history of Jews in the White House:
The Jews broke through in the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt named Oscar Straus to be Secretary of Commerce, making Straus the first Jewish Cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft became the first president to invite a Jew—Sears President Julius Rosenwald—to dinner at the White House in 1912. In addition, 1920 GOP candidate Warren G. Harding benefited from a campaign song written and performed by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.” (Tablet Magazine, April 24, 2012)
Taft invited Julius Rosenwald to lunch on February 28th, 1912, but upon his arrival, he was surprised at the rather more generous invitation to stay overnight at the White House as well. In his biography of Rosenwald, Peter M. Ascoli quotes a letter from Rosenwald to his wife, who was back in Chicago, written while staying in the White House. Rosenwald was enthusiastic about the visit, praising the “genial” manner of Mr. and Mrs. Taft and the “simple food” served at both dinner and breakfast the next day.
President Taft with his wife, Helen
Library of Congress
What Rosenwald and Taft discussed is not fully known, but most likely one of the major topics was Taft’s campaign for reelection. Rosenwald had been a loyal Republican supporter for years, and had been supporting Taft publicly since at least 1910. A rift among progressives and conservatives in the Republican Party was forming due to the interest of Theodore Roosevelt in breaking from the party to mount an independent campaign against Taft. This bothered Rosenwald, and when he returned to Chicago he attended the Republican National Convention and began fundraising for Taft, pledging $10,000 of his own money. Taft eventually won the nomination, but lost the general election to Woodrow Wilson.
Political cartoon from 1912 satirizing infighting in the Republican Party between Taft and Roosevelt
Library of Congress
Rosenwald had visited the White House at least twice before 1912. The first time was at Taft’s request: when Taft heard of Rosenwald’s plan to provide challenge grants to black YMCAs across the country, he hosted Rosenwald in April of 1911 at the White House to convince him to “grandfather” in Washington D.C.’s YMCA that was already under construction. Later that year, Rosenwald used his prior relationship with Taft to get another meeting at the White House, this time on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (of which Rosenwald was a founding member). The AJC had made it its mission to convince the federal government to abrogate the Treaty of 1832 with Russia, for the reason that Russia was not allowing Jews to cross its borders and was strictly circumscribing their actions and movements within its borders. In his biography, Ascoli argues that this visit from Rosenwald played a large part in Taft’s decision to abrogate the treaty. While a diplomatically risky move, this was a vital stand against the state-sponsored persecution of Jews in Russia.
Rosenwald was dismayed at the results of the 1912 election, in which Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, allowing Wilson to win by a large margin. During the following years, he remained involved with the Republican Party in a time when his fellow progressives were abandoning it. As years went by, Taft and Rosenwald continued to correspond intermittently.
By Michael Rose
Celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City
Photo Credit: Unknown, published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914
Between 1911 and the time of his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald provided funding for the construction of African-American YMCAs in 24 cities. Although some have been lost, many have survived the better part of a century since the opening of Rosenwald’s challenge grant program.
The Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, in operation since 1920
Photo Credit: Rob Dunalewicz, 2012 (flickr)
While African-Americans are no longer restricted from staying in other hotels, the Rosenwald YMCAs can still serve a purpose in their communities. Some of these buildings remain in active use as YMCAs, such as the ones in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Harlem and Chicago. Others have been adapted over the years to meet the changing needs of their communities. Brooklyn’s has become a nursing home, while Toledo’s, Dayton’s and Washington’s have been repurposed as community centers.
The Paseo Boulevard YMCA building in Kansas City, pre-renovation
Photo Credit: Equina27, 2010 (flickr)
Several others have seen more creative reuse. In Kansas City, reuse of the long dormant and increasingly blighted Paseo Boulevard YMCA as an extension of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will be made possible through a remediation grant from the EPA, a federal grant and a massive fundraising drive in the community. The new facility, known as the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, will house museum archives, exhibits, conference facilities and educational areas. The Paseo YMCA is an important historical site for the Negro Leagues, as it was the location in 1920 of the formation of the Negro National League, the first African-American professional baseball league.
Murals outside the new Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA
Photo Credit: Pam Morris, 2011 (flickr)
In Los Angeles, the Paul Revere Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA is in the process of being rehabilitated and expanded to provide 50 units of affordable housing to the Central Avenue community. The new building, expected to open in June of 2012, will also provide social services to its tenants and community meeting space. While no longer a YMCA, the building has stayed true to its original goal of providing housing and services to a vulnerable population.
After the YMCA in Dallas closed its Rosenwald-funded building on Flora Street in 1970 to move into a new facility closer to the emerging African-American community in Oak Cliff, the building was intermittently vacant or used as office space until it was purchased in 2002 by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Thanks to small and large-scale fundraising in the community, the Theatre opened its new space in 2007 after a lengthy rehabilitation of the building.
Rosenwald would likely have approved of the reuse of these structures. Rosenwald’s philosophy of philanthropy, outlined in two popular articles he wrote in 1929 for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly, stressed the importance of large, flexible gifts as opposed to specific, restricted ones. The YMCAs in their original state as multipurpose community centers and temporary residences epitomize this form of flexible, unconditional philanthropy.
The Rosenwald YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem
Photo Credit: Jeff Dobbins (http://nycxplorer.com/)
Likewise, the creatively repurposed YMCAs are an extension of Rosenwald’s philosophy. The fundraising drives that have made these creative reuse projects possible have come from the same communities Rosenwald’s challenge grants energized into building the YMCAs in the first place. Biographer Peter Ascoli points out that Rosenwald knew that “it was just as likely that the concerns of today would be completely superseded by other concerns in the far distant future,” so reuse of the YMCA buildings fits with his intentions. For example, the revitalization and repurposing of the Harlem YMCA honors Rosenwald’s legacy of philanthropic giving, as it “is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood” (The New York Times, Oct 25, 2008).
By Michael Rose
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.
The 12th Street YMCA, shortly after its opening
Photo credit: Published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914
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.
The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
Photo credit: Michael Rose, March, 2012
By Michael Rose