CHICAGO — The former Historic Wabash YMCA was built in 1911 and finished in 1913. It was largely financed by Julius Rosenwald, the President of Sears Roebuck, and was the first YMCA for African Americans in the Midwest. The building often found itself at the intersection of race, perseverance and progress.
Patricia Abrams is the Executive Director of the Renaissance Collaborative. The organization took on the challenge of restoring the building and preserving its history.
“I had to take a stance that we will not put a marker down and say ‘This was.’ We needed to work with everybody,” she said. “That was testament to what the Y meant to the African American community from the time it was developed in 1911.”
The preservation of history is the heart and soul of the building located at 38th and Wabash. It is where Black History Month was born.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson had been barred from attending the American Historical Association Conferences despite being a dues paying member. Inspired by his experiences at the Y and the Bronzeville neighborhood, he and a small group met at the YMCA and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. And in 1926, Woodson created Negro History Week.
A“It was really about lifting up those African Americans who had made great contributions to American society, but they were not recognized as such,” Abrams said. “Most of them had been stolen. When you steal something and put a patent on it, it becomes yours.”
Woodson found little desire amongst white historians to recognize Black history. Instead, he sought to record and preserve those accomplishments on his own.
While Woodson was preserving history, the building fueled the present. It was an academic, social, and cultural center. Babies were weighed there. African Americans finally had a place to learn to swim and women joined the swim team. Pullman Porters had a place to sleep and for Black men to collect their paychecks during the race riots. It was considered a safe space.
In the ballroom, William Edouard Scott unveiled a mural in 1936. It showed a young man in a big city looking up at the original YMCA symbol surrounded by avenues of opportunity.
The once bustling rooms became quiet and the building fell into disrepair in the 1970s. It was a long journey to begin restoration. The Renaissance Collective fundraised and found specialized craftsmen to tackle the intricate details.
“The community has a role to play in the safety and welfare of future generations. “We saved this building primarily for the people who come afterwards,” Abrams said.
It is still a work in progress, but it’s a living landmark with more than 110 years of history that continues today. It is once again a community resource including supportive housing, job training and a culinary program. The Historic Wabash YMCA is experiencing a rebirth.