YMCA Black History

We honor the Black leaders who helped move the YMCA toward greater inclusion and equity for all. See a few of their stories. 

Anthony Bowen 

A former slave and the first Black American to become a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, Anthony Bowen founded the first YMCA for the Black community in Washington, D.C., in 1853, eight years before the Civil War. Additional Black Ys and college chapters were established in the following decades, with membership reaching 28,000 nationwide by the mid-1920s. During the 1950-60s, these YMCAs provided a safe place for civil rights leaders to organize and stay in a segregated south. Learn more on the impact of the first African-American YMCA.

Carter G. Woodson 

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson attended a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago. Inspired by the thousands of Black Americans who traveled across the country to see exhibits highlighting 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. This began the foundation that would create Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Black History Month. 

William Hunton

The son of a freed enslaved family from Canada, William Hunton began his Y work in 1888 as the first employed YMCA secretary at a “Colored YMCA” in Norfolk, VA. Hunton worked among the soldiers in the Army camps during the Spanish-American War and in developing Student YMCAs on Black campuses throughout the South. He helped communities meet philanthropist Julius Rosenwald’s challenge grant to build YMCAs for Black communities, and then helped recruit and train the staff and volunteers to lead those associations. 

Madam CJ Walker

An entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist, Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first self-made female American millionaires. She escaped poverty and built a company selling hair care products, which also gave her sales agents an income of their own. Walker was a philanthropic supporter of the YMCA and participated in and financially supported the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement.

Violet P Henry

After holding various executive leadership roles in the Newark and Chicago YMCAs, in 1976, Violet P. Henry became the first woman to be named to a top management position at the Y's national office. She provided leadership for numerous national and international commissions and committees that worked for the rights of women and people of color. 

Kevin Washington

In 2015, Kevin Washington became the first African American - and the first person of color - to serve as CEO of the YMCA of the USA. Besides reimagining a new service delivery system across the Y movement, Washington was a leading national voice for relief from federal government for nonprofits devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He spearheaded the highly successful #Relief4Charities effort, put Y-USA on a path to become an anti-racist, multicultural organization and engaged young people as changemakers in their communities. 

View the chronology of important dates in the history of African Americans and the YMCA

Read the blog post A Conversation with Giovanni Forrest, Chair of the YMCA of Metro Denver's Staff Racial Equity Committee.

Inspiring children’s books on Black History: