Segregated YMCAs


Segregated YMCAs


During WWI, Addie W. Hunton led a group of African American women welfare workers serving in France under the auspices of the YMCA. The racism Hunton saw in the war radicalized her, changing the direction of her activism.

But before we get there, a detour to the Y. Segregated Y thread.

Today we think of the @YMCA as gyms, pools, summer camps--all present from early on, w/a large dose of Christian morals. AND until the mid-20th century, YMCA & YWCA were segregated institutions. African-Americans & Asian-Americans were “welcome,” in separate branches, separate buildings.

Addie Hunton & her husband William sought to leverage the Y’s power for Black advancement.

William Hunton family had emigrated to Canada for freedom in the 1850s. His leadership of the Ottawa YMCA got noticed, and in 1888 he was hired to run the Black Y in Norfolk, VA.

Wm. Hunton was the first Black man to be a full-time paid Y director. Two years later he was appointed to lead the new “Colored Men’s Department” of the national YMCA, making him the national’s first Black employee. Eventually, Addie was hired by the YWCA - the 1st Black woman employee. 

Their work sent them to new cities. In Richmond and then Atlanta, Addie was a leader in her community and a delegate to the founding convention of the National Association of Colored Women. Eventually they settled in Brooklyn, while traveling nationally and internationally for the YMCA.

By the turn of the century, Addie Hunton was a well-known speaker and writer, publishing in popular periodicals like Voice of the Negro, Colored American Magazine, and later the Crisis. Within the YWCA she pushed the organization to be more engaged in fighting lynching & discrimination.

At the same time, she urged African-Americans to appreciate the power of working with the YWCA/YMCA despite its segregation. Black YMCAs were being built around the country, spurred by a financial grant from Julius Rosenwald.

Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck magnate who gave matching funds to build rural southern schoolhouses for Black children, created a similar grant program for Black YMCAs. 23 cities met his challenge: a $25,000 grant if the community raised $75,000.

This was a mixed blessing. In Chicago, for example, #IdaBWells had built her own community center -- with money from white donors who were appalled the existing Y wouldn’t admit African-Americans. Then the Y announced it would build a Black branch - with seed $ from Rosenwald - and Ida lost her funding.

The Rosenwald funding illustrates why the Huntons wanted African-Americans to partake of the Y’s powerful brand. Chicago was an exception: in most places, rich whites weren’t making large capital investments in independent local community centers. So partnering with the segregated Y could bring resources, and the opportunity to change the Y from the inside.

Addie & William's headstone, at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, bears the Y's emblem, adopted in 1896.

In Pittsburgh, the Black YMCA building is now a hip boutique hotel. In Brooklyn, the 1902 YMCA where Sarah Smith Garnet’s Equal Suffrage League met -- known then as “the Colored Carlton Avenue Y” -- is now a nursing home. The 1st Black Y building, in Washington, DC, houses the Thurgood Marshall Center.

Today the YWCA’s mission is explicitly anti-racist: in 2015 they adopted the slogan “Eliminating Racism; Empowering Women”; a commitment to fighting racism is a required job qualification. I think Addie would be gratified to see this still-strong network of resources devoted to women of color.

TOMORROW: Addie Hunton goes to war.


Daily Suffragist




ACE Hotel Pgh.jpg
bookjacket bio of William Hunton.jpg
Addie Waites Hunton gravesite.jpeg
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Addie part I screenshot.png


Daily Suffragist, “Segregated YMCAs,” Daily Suffragist, accessed September 27, 2022,

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