THE MOST PROMINENT building on West 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem is not an elaborate church or a stately apartment building but the 90-year-old Y.M.C.A. But despite its bulk, the edifice — with its brick facade, 14-story tower and tall sign with the letters “Y.M.C.A.” blazing in red neon each night — can be easy to overlook: It’s been a mainstay of the neighborhood for so long that its residents sometimes forget to notice it.
Yet the institution — and what it represents, not only to Harlem but to the advancement of 20th-century Black American culture — is monumental, a living repository of nearly a century of art, activism and history. Inside, the air smells waxy, like old crayons, and there’s an elegant patina throughout, from the sable oak-paneled walls to the worn, coral-colored floor tiles. Past the wooden reception booth gleams a bronze United States Post Office mail chute — still in use — decorated with an Art Deco-style bald eagle. Down a few steps and through an arched French double door is a small white room with a mural by Aaron Douglas, a 20th-century painter whose works can be found in Washington, D.C.’s, National Gallery of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Aaron Douglas’s “Evolution of Negro Dance” (1935) at the Harlem Y.M.C.A.Credit…© 2021 Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Joshua McHugh
The 5-by-11-foot work, titled “Evolution of Negro Dance,” was completed in 1935 and depicts different stages of Black life in America. On its far left are gray silhouettes of enslaved people, their knees and wrists held together as if shackled. As you move toward the right, the figures transition from a supplicatory stance to a self-assured one until, finally, you encounter an illustration of a woman dancing, her head thrown back in laughter as a band plays beside her. Like the rest of the building, it enshrines the development of Black life in America, a story that ends with Black people becoming business and property owners, actors and writers, poets and singers.
After its founding, the Y.M.C.A. became an incubator for the Harlem Renaissance. Prominent voices of the movement — the essayist Alain LeRoy Locke, the poet Countee Cullen, the novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison — all stayed or worked here in the early 20th century. The Y, which provided room and board for a few dollars, became a safe haven for artistic expression, a place to talk freely, away from the strictures of a country still run by Jim Crow laws, and a shared living room for some of the six million Black Americans who were moving from the South as part of the Great Migration, which began in 1916 and would last until 1970. Some would venture to other metropolises, like Chicago and Detroit, but many would land in Harlem, a destination for Black people of all professions and means. This was a neighborhood where they could eat at a Black-owned restaurant, go dancing at a Black-owned speakeasy or saloon, shop at a Black-owned drugstore or play pool at a Black-owned billiard hall. They could acquire property from the Jewish and Irish homeowners who started leaving as soon as Black people began arriving in significant numbers at the turn of the century — and they could meet and learn from one another, in a place where they were equal. In 1925, Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, who often worked out of the Harlem Y alongside the poet Langston Hughes, edited a magazine that called the surrounding area “the Mecca of the New Negro”: a man who isn’t harassed or patronized but, rather, moves under his own steam. Later, Hughes would write what would become one of his best-known poems, “Theme for English B” (1951), about a young man who lives at the Harlem Y.
THE YOUNG MEN’S Christian Association was founded in England in 1844 and arrived stateside in Boston seven years later, offering lodging, meals, job training and educational services exclusively to white men. The Harlem branch’s first dedicated building was established in 1868 at 5 West 125th Street — now a T.J. Maxx — where, for about $5 a year, members had access to a lending library, a gym, and cycling and baseball clubs, as well as classes in botany, typewriting, mechanical drawing and languages like Spanish and French.
That building was made of brownstone, with a gabled roof and two sets of large bay windows across its facade fronting what’s now called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. An 1882 Y.M.C.A. annual report noted that Harlem, then known as the Twelfth Ward — it had been annexed by Manhattan nine years earlier — was rapidly evolving; once a rural, village-like enclave for rich English, Dutch and French families, it had become desirable among city elites. (Alexander Hamilton built his mansion there in 1802.) Harlem’s first Black families had relocated from downtown Manhattan after being displaced by European immigrants in the late 1800s. By 1914, the neighborhood had 50,000 Black residents.
Their arrival coincided with significant shifts in the city’s racial demographic and, in 1867, a group of 35 Manhattan residents submitted an application to the Y’s board of directors requesting the establishment of the country’s first Colored Young Men’s Christian Association. The men initially met at an independently run downtown branch in what is today SoHo. A few years later, some of these members began lobbying for a distinctly Black Y.M.C.A. Even without its own location, “the Colored Branch is exerting a wide influence among the colored men of the city and through the country,” the association noted in its 1867-68 annual report. It called its three dozen Black members “self-reliant” and outlined what was perceived to be their mission: “Without any political or sectarian bias, the members aim to instruct their newly liberated brethren in all that will tend to make them useful and happy, and to unite them in efforts for religious education as the true means of elevation.”
After three decades of petitioning, a dedicated Colored Young Men’s Christian Association was established in 1901. In 1918, following a round of fund-raising, the group left its location on West 53rd Street for a property it purchased on Harlem’s West 135th Street; a new building was constructed in 1919. During its first years of operation, the Colored Branch served around 1,000 members, and its dormitory rooms sold out near nightly.
IF HARLEM HAD become the epicenter of Black America, then the Y was the epicenter of that epicenter. Members might begin the morning with Bible class, then attend a men’s meeting (the Black women’s branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association moved from Midtown to Harlem in 1913), where topics ranged from health to the economy. Others formed their own clubs and extracurricular organizations; performers like Paul Robeson, Richard Pryor and Sidney Poitier took the stage in the basement’s Little Theater. In 1931, a then-30-year-old Hughes became a features editor for the branch’s newsletter, The New Sign, in which he chronicled the buzzing neighborhood and asked his readers provocative questions: “Why is it that, with all their pretensions to culture, their money and degrees, the ‘best Negroes’ have not yet produced a single writer who can write about the upper classes with anything remotely approaching the artistry of Claude McKay? Somebody please tell me, I’d like to know.”
As the Y continued to develop, so, too, did Black society. Men like Phillip Anthony Payton Jr., the so-called Father of Harlem, started real estate and insurance businesses, and managed dozens of buildings in the area. People went to nightclubs — there were hundreds at the time — to listen to jazz and dance. Ladies might get their hair done at Madam C.J. Walker’s hair salon, run by her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, in a townhouse a block away, on West 136th Street.
Both the Y and the neighboring storefronts were among the only places where Black New Yorkers could finally form ideas about who they were and wanted to become. They created campaigns like 1934’s Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work, after which Black Harlemites boycotted white businesses that refused to hire them. They celebrated their own local luminaries like Douglas, the painter, and the writer Zora Neale Hurston. And while none of these venues were truly utopian in an era of ongoing social and economic stratification, they nevertheless provided some reprieve from daily indignities. Here was somewhere to just sit and think, much like the historically Black colleges and universities, whose students played a pivotal role during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or today’s flourishing of Black-owned businesses — from flower shops to fashion boutiques to co-working spaces — amid the Black Lives Matter movement (and other grass-roots efforts), all of which continue to prove the power and necessity of creating a space of one’s own.
As Harlem became more Black (by 1930, Black people accounted for 70 percent of the neighborhood’s residents), several other cultural institutions dedicated to helping, chronicling and celebrating its residents’ lives and history joined the Y: The area soon welcomed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — named for Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a pioneering local historian — the New York Urban League and the New York Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper that often published editorials about the changing neighborhood. As one unsigned article put it in 1926, Harlem was now a neighborhood for a person “determined to have freedom in all its phases,” if “not necessarily a diploma, a white collar, a salary from a charity organization — he believes in God and himself and his future and is hard at work.”
These days, Harlem remains among the most prominent and vibrant Black neighborhoods in the country, a place where history abuts innovation on every block. The Harlem Y, which moved down the street in 1932, still runs neighborhood programs, from children’s swimming lessons to adult exercise classes, and its dormitories have been converted into a hostel and temporary housing for the homeless. It continues to welcome newcomers and those in need from the rest of the country and abroad. Here was where the dream of Black America began — and here is where the dream continues, still.