We Celebrate Black History Month and its Roots at the YMCA

Black History Month has roots associated with the YMCA. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a University of Chicago alumnus, arrived in Chicago for to attend a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Inspired by this three-week celebration where thousands of African Americans had travelled from across the country to see exhibits that highlighted the progress of their people since the end of slavery, Woodson met at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago with a small group and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). This began the foundation that would create Negro History and Literature Week, renamed Negro Achievement Week, later Negro History Week and eventually Black History Month.

Woodson wanted the study of past black life to have significant impact stating, “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.” It is important to note that the focus of Black History month has been on black achievements since enslavement in the US, however, Woodson’s intent was to explore modern black history as a starting point to deeper exploration beyond the arrival of enslaved Africans in the Americas.

The YMCA of Central Ohio's roots run deep as well. At the turn of the century- the YMCA opened its arms to embrace Columbus's vibrant African American community. The Spring Street YMCA, built at the dawn of the Jazz Age, was one of the first YMCAs in the country to specifically serve the Black community, and was a beloved institution for decades. The Spring Street YMCA was built into the growing and thriving African American community on the Near East Side of Columbus. Most members of the community came into contact with the Spring Street YMCA in one way or another.

The Spring Street YMCA eventually moved off of Spring Street and was called the East Side YMCA. The East Side Y continuously advocated for the rights and needs of its African American constituents. For example, in 1954, the Board of Management of the East Side YMCA petitioned the Columbus YMCA to allow their students to attend the same summer camps as white students at other Columbus branches. Leaders from the East Side YMCA, such as director Nelson Newsom, were involved in discussions with national YMCA leaders about ways to further integrate the national organization’s staff and mission.

The East Side YMCA's successor, the Eldon and Elsie Ward Family YMCA, still serves this diverse Near East Side community today.