The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Colored Work Department, provided religious, social, recreational, entertainment, and educational programs for African Americans in cities and on college campuses. Despite the YMCA's segregation, African Americans joined the YMCA in large numbers. They organized their own black-controlled branches, raised funds to purchase buildings, and recruited and trained black men to staff their associations. After establishing control over their associations, African Americans challenged the YMCA's decision to desegregate all of its facilities in 1946.
The YMCA was founded in 1844 in London, where Americans first encountered the association during the 1851 Worlds Fair. In the following year several North American cities established associations, and in 1854 American and Canadian branches organized the Confederation of North American YMCAs. The confederation, afraid to alienate southern members, avoided any discussion of slavery and did not encourage free blacks to join the YMCA.
Nevertheless, African Americans had already established a separate black association in 1853. Anthony Bowen, a former slave who had purchased his freedom and then became the first black clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, founded the first black YMCA in Washington, D.C. The association, though limited by lack of funds and restrictive laws regulating the personal freedom of African Americans, offered Bible study meetings to free blacks throughout the 1860s.
During the Civil War the Confederation of North American YMCAs disintegrated, but associations in the North continued to operate. They disbanded regular activities and organized the U.S. Christian Commission to provide relief work for soldiers. Following the war those who had been active in the Christian Commission rebuilt the North American YMCA and dominated the association's leadership ranks. Hoping to christianize the former slaves, white association leaders encouraged freedmen to join the YMCA in separate associations. During the 1860s and 1870s, several black associations emerged, but they were short-lived due to local white opposition, lack of financial resources, and the YMCA's failure to provide any type of assistance.
Following Reconstruction the North American YMCA started to promote association work for African Americans in response to pressure from three groups: those hoping to recruit African Americans for missionary work in Africa, former abolitionists who were concerned about the condition of the freedmen, and white southerners who worried about maintaining racial harmony. In 1876, the North American YMCA appointed its first International Secretary for black association work. Between 1876 and 1891 two white men, George D. Johnston and Henry Edwards Brown, served successively in the post. Johnston visited southern communities soliciting white support for black association work while trying to arouse African American interest in the YMCA. Johnston, a former Confederate general, was unable to gain the trust and confidence of African Americans, and black YMCA work therefore made little progress. In 1879 Henry Edwards Brown, a former abolitionist, succeeded Johnston. Brown visited black colleges and introduced students to association work in the hope that after graduation they would return home and establish YMCAs in their local communities. Brown's strategy was successful, and by 1887 African
Young Men's Christian Association, Colored Work Department