Jackie Robinson, the first Black Major League Baseball player, was also a Black leader at the Harlem YMCA, where he served as a volunteer coach for the youth baseball team.
Black Leaders in the YMCA
The history of the YMCA – like the history of the United States – is a story of incremental progress toward greater inclusion and equity for all.
As we celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth, we are honoring the stories of Black leaders who helped move the Y – and America – forward. These great leaders include: Anthony Bowen, Madam C.J. Walker, Jackie Robinson, Leo B. Marsh, Violet P. Henry and Kevin Washington.
Each YMCA Black leader has a personal connection with the YMCA, and we’re highlighting their positive impact in their respective communities.
A former enslaved person 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.
Madam C.J. 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 financially supported and participated in the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first Black Major League Baseball player. The same year, he also became a volunteer coach at the Harlem YMCA with his fellow coach and teammate, Roy Campanella.
Leo B. Marsh
In 1954, Dr. Leo B. Marsh became the first Black president of the Association of YMCA Secretaries. In 1971, Marsh brought the Black Achievers program (created by Quentin R. Mease at the South Central YMCA of Houston) to the Harlem YMCA. With the help of volunteer adult mentors, the Black Achievers program helps youth of color succeed in school and develop a positive sense of self.
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.
In 2015, Kevin Washington became the first African American – and the first person of color – to serve as CEO of YMCA of the USA. Besides reimagining a new service delivery system across the Y movement, Washington was a leading national voice for relief from the 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.
Learn more about the YMCA's history of Black leadership throughout the movement!
Published Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.