In April, 1912 the Twelfth Street Colored Y.M.C.A. of Washington, D.C. opened. Here’s some more about this landmark building in Part II of a series.
But first, some background.
In 1853, ex-slave Anthony Bowen founded the first Colored Y.M.C.A. in Washington, D.C.
It was Colored because the Y organization knew about the segregationist views of most Americans but yet still wanted to provide it’s services to blacks. Having Colored Men’s Branches, as they were called, was the only way.
But don’t get it twisted.
Having a Colored Y.M.C.A. Branch didn’t necessarily mean you had a building for your Y.M.C.A. Branch. That came much later.
Bowen, a minister and the first African American to work in the U.S. Patent Office, was an outspoken advocate for the education of black children.
His pioneering work led the way for many others: by 1896, there were 60 active all-black Y.M.C.A.s throughout the country.
Of these, 41 were student branches at colleges.
In the middle of the 1800s, Washington was the destination of choice for runaway slaves and freedmen anxious to escape the South. The city’s black population soared prior to the Civil War. The Colored Y.M.C.A. helped newly arriving blacks find accommodating hotels, restaurants, entertainment, and other resources to help them settle.
Between 1860 and 1870 the number of African American residents in D.C. more than tripled, and by 1875 nearly 40% of the city’s population was black.
Did you know it was already Chocolate City way back then?!
This was an exciting time for blacks. The Washington Bee, a Negro newspaper, was created in 1856. Howard University, named after a white general named Oliver Otis Howard, the head of the Freedman’s Bureau, was founded in 1867. And the nation’s first public school for blacks, the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth, was opened in 1870.
No surprise, this progress caused a backlash of fear and anger among whites. Segregationist laws and other countermeasures were put in place, and black Washingtonians began to lose ground in many areas. Living conditions deteriorated steeply, and by 1890 only the lowest level jobs in the government were available to African Americans, if at all.
The original Colored Y.M.C.A. was rendered inactive during the 1870s, with little hope of healthy development.
But the nucleus of the black community stood strong, and by 1900 a thriving African American section existed around the intersection of Fourteenth and U Streets, near Howard University and the Preparatory High School (now M Street High).
The neighborhood became known as the “Shaw” District, after the white officer in the movie “Glory.” Remember him? That was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was killed while commanding the first African American unit in the Union Army, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
That was a great movie (with Denzel getting an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) but now I think of Matthew Broderick every time I drive up Georgia Ave. in D.C.
Meanwhile, Bowen’s original Colored Y.M.C.A. Branch rebounded. They incorporated and built an office on Eleventh Street in 1892.
In 1903, now with nearly 600 members, the branch moved to a newly constructed multi-purpose building known as True Reformer’s Hall on U Street. People familiar with the area will know this spot, across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl, the popular Howard student hangout with the world’s best chili.
Soon the Y needed a bigger space.
So, in 1907 land was purchased on Twelfth Street. On Thanksgiving Day in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone, calling the project “a monument to the advancement of the city of Washington.”
That’s when the branch became known as the Twelfth Street Colored Y.M.C.A.
The new 5-story, 35,000 square foot, Renaissance-style structure with 72 boarding rooms, a swimming pool, and a gymnasium, would take 4 years and $100,000 to complete, and officially opened in May 1912.
Who paid for it? A total of $27,000 was donated by 4,500 black citizens from the surrounding community, and the rest was contributed by several private philanthropies.
It was designed by William Sidney Pittman – the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington — who was one of the nation’s first prominent African American architects.
Over the years, numerous historical greats have been affiliated with the building, including Edwin B. Henderson and his Washington 12 Streeters championship basketball team, Langston Hughes, Charles Drew, Duke Ellington, and Thurgood Marshall.
The success of the Twelfth Street Colored YMCA Branch served as the model for many others until by 1924 there were 160 all-black YMCAs with nearly 30,000 members.
This beautiful building — recently renovated — still stands today.
The original Bowen Branch moved out (to W Street, N.W.) and the building now houses the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.
What’s cool about it is that they rebuilt the original interior, so walking inside is like going back in time.
Stop by there whenever you’re in D.C. (1816 Twelfth Street, N.W., between S Street and T Street).
While you’re there, just sit down for a minute. A lot of goodwill has drenched this place. Reflect. Absorb. Let it move you. Let it make history now.