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Anthony Bowen YMCA Personifies Black History

Officials, Others tout facility an 'African-American Sanctuary'

Stacy M. Brown | 2/5/2014, 3 p.m.
The Anthony Bowen YMCA basketball team, seen here in The Crisis in July 1911 (Courtesy of the Modernist Journals Project)

Simply put, the Anthony Bowen YMCA in Northwest is black history personified.

Established in 1853 by a former slave, many historic African-American figures have either called the YMCA home or have held important functions and activities there.

Langston Hughes, the late poet, activist and playwright, worked as a busboy in the District and lived in a room at the landmark when it stood on 12th Street.

Former Los Angeles Lakers great, Elgin Baylor, and legendary Georgetown Hoyas coach, John Thompson, played basketball there and honed their craft at the historic facility.

And, more than 60 years ago when the Supreme Court heard final arguments in the monumental desegregation case known as Brown vs. Board of Education, the attorney arguing the case prepared most of his legal strategy at the Anthony Bowen YMCA.

That attorney, Thurgood Marshall, went on to become the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Civil rights activist Marcus Garvey, an orator for the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, used the Bowen YMCA to deliver several speeches in which he inspired a global mass movement, known as Garveyism, which ultimately inspired the Nation of Islam, the Rastafarian movement and others.

“It’s the first YMCA to serve African Americans in the world,” said Jackie Dilworth, the director of communications for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “It makes sense to celebrate Black History Month knowing the history of the Y,” she said.

Historians said Bowen proved committed to the advancement of blacks in social, educational, and religious activities.

For nearly 40 years, the YMCA served blacks and existed independent of the white YMCA of the city of Washington.

Activities at the facility were restricted to meetings in rented space, donated rooms, and members’ living rooms.

However, Bowen reorganized as a branch of the YMCA of the city of Washington in 1905.

Shortly afterwards, the 12th Street branch opened in 1912, providing black men the opportunity to experience all of the amenities of a full-service YMCA.

The branch officially desegregated in 1922, and for the next 50 years, it proved to be the only YMCA facility in the District serving African-Americans.

“It’s been such a tremendous hallmark, an important part of the community,” said Janice Williams, senior vice president of program development for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

“There’s so much history, positive history there and so many people who have been there and who keep coming back and bringing their children because of how much it means to the community,” Williams said.

Born into slavery in Prince George’s County, Md., in 1809, Anthony Bowen never let his adverse circumstances determine his future, she said.

He was able to moonlight as a painter and bricklayer when his work was done. After saving enough money, Bowen purchased his freedom for $425 in 1830.

After he purchased his wife’s freedom, Bowen moved his family to Washington. 
His commitment to inclusion and service made an enduring legacy in the nation’s capital for the rest of his years.

By the time he died in 1871, Bowen had become a prominent religious leader and educator, council member of the District’s Seventh Ward, the first African-American clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, and founder and president of the world’s first African-American YMCA.