Celebrating Black History Month

As you may know, February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history.

The first YMCA open to African Americans was founded in 1853 by Anthony Bowen in the City of Washington.  For the first 40 years of its existence, it operated independently of a nearby white YMCA.  The Anthony Bowen YMCA was reorganized as an official branch of the Y in the City of Washington in 1905.  For the next 50 years, it was the only YMCA facility in the District serving African Americans.

Who was Anthony Bowen?  Born into slavery in Prince George’s County, MD in 1809, Anthony Bowen never let his adverse circumstances determine his future. He was able to moonlight as a painter and bricklayer.  After saving enough money, he purchased his freedom for $425 in 1830. After he purchased his wife’s freedom, Anthony Bowen moved his family to Washington. 

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.

In 1913, the Ninth Street Branch opened its doors at Seventh and Plum Streets in Cincinnati.  This branch was designed to serve African Americans, and was at capacity from the beginning. Many agencies utilized this structure over the years, including the Negro Welfare Division of the Council of Social Agencies, later known as the Urban League. World Heavyweight boxing champion Ezzard Charles attended the branch from the time he was 10-years-old.

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