The History of the First African American Y

Published: February 12, 2019, at 2:42 p.m. PT

Last updated: April 3, 2019, at 1:26 p.m. PT

Founded in 1853, the YMCA Anthony Bowen in Washington, D.C. was thefirst YMCA open to African Americansin the world. Inspired by his friend William Chauncey Langdon, founder of the YMCA of the City of Washington, Anthony Bowen was committed to the advancement of African Americans in social, educational, and religious respects. For nearly the first forty years of its existence, the “Colored” YMCA existed independent of the white YMCA of the City of Washington, and their activities were restricted to meetings in rented space, donated rooms, and members’ living rooms. With determination and dedication, YMCA Anthony Bowen was reorganized as a branch of the YMCA of the City of Washington in 1905.

In 1912, following the Reformation, the Twelfth Street Branch opened its first home, giving African-American men a place to nurture their potential. For the next fifty years, it was the only YMCA facility in the District serving African Americans.

During this time, the 12th Street Y provided refuge forAfrican Americans hoping to change the world:

  • Where poet Langston Hughes lived while a busboy at Wardman Park Hotel

  • Where Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall designed legal strategies for Brown vs. Board of Education

  • Where Dr. Charles Drew built his character as a child

  • Where NBA legend Elgin Baylor learned how to play basketball

  • Where Marcus Garvey gave inspirational speeches

The Y quickly became an anchor in the neighborhood, providing a safe and nurturing place for adults and children alike. “Not only did this Y survive decades of civil unrest, economic hardship, and racial conflict but it also continues to serve as a metropolis for African American intellectual and cultural life, nurturing some of the greatest leaders in our history,” said Angie L. Reese-Hawkins, President & CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

In 1982, after 70 years at the historic 12th Street branch, the Y moved a few blocks away to a facility that better suited the needs of the community.

ABOUT ANTHONY BOWEN

Anthony Bowen was born into slavery in 1809. His commitment to inclusion and service made an enduring legacy in the nation’s capital for the rest of his years. In 1853, Anthony Bowen organized the first Colored Men’s Christian Association just two years after the Y was established in the U.S. Respected in both white and black communities, he was well-known for his leadership in establishing churches, religious instruction, and education for free blacks in the District of Columbia. By the time he died in 1871, Anthony Bowen had become a prominent religious leader and educator, council member of the District’s Seventh Ward, the first African American clerk at the US Patent Office, and founder and president of the world’s first African American YMCA.