Black History Month and its roots with the YMCA

Celebrating Black History Month at our YMCA

February is Black History month and creates the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of individuals from diverse backgrounds. What many may not know, however, is that Black History month has roots with the Y.

In 1910, Carter G. Woodson created Negro History week, now Black History Month, while residing at the Wabash YMCA in the 1910s. A University of Chicago alumnus, Woodson was inspired by a 50th anniversary emancipation celebration he attended in Chicago in 1915. He later gathered a small group and met at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago to form the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. This led to the creation of Negro History and Literature Week, renamed Negro Achievement Week, and later Negro History Week. It became the month long celebration known as Black History Month in 1976.

One of the first YMCA’s in the United States was founded by a former slave, Anthony Bowen. After learning about the YMCA from a white co-worker, and with the knowledge that African-Americans were banned from any membership facilities, Bowen decided that he would create a “Black YMCA” that was open to both whites and blacks. His YMCA, “The YMCA for Colored Men and Boys” and also the first in the United States, was opened in June 1892 in Washington D.C..

Black History and the YMCA of Central Ohio: Eldon and Elsie Ward

As a child, Eldon W. Ward was unable to attend the Downtown YMCA because he was black. However, that did not stop him from becoming one of the YMCA of Central Ohio’s most honored volunteers. 

Eldon Ward is remembered as a Sunday school teacher at Second Baptist Church, a civic leader with the Columbus Foundation, a passionate volunteer for both the United Way of Central Ohio and the YMCA, and a historian with a photographic memory. 

He helped lead the family business, E. E. Ward Storage and Moving Co., billed as the nation’s oldest continuously operating black-owned business. Eldon was actively involved with the YMCA as a member for more than 69 years and provided dedicated service on numerous committees for 65 years. In the capacity of volunteer instructor, Eldon taught bodybuilding, weight-lifting, gymnastics, acrobatics, rhythm dancing and swimming. His dedication led him to serve as chair in 1985. The East Side YMCA was renamed in honor of Eldon W. Ward in 1991, citing his commitment of more than 40 years to the YMCA and the East Side community. In 2007, the branch was renamed to reflect the contributions and support of Mrs. Elsie Ward.

Achievements in the YMCA movement would not be possible without past and present fearless African-American leaders. This month, and every month, we lift up and thank them.