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Colored Work Department records

Identifier: Y.USA.1


The records include reports on national policy concerning fundraising, personnel, and programming; these materials also include correspondence of the senior department secretary and his staff, documenting their efforts to promote the development of the YMCA movement in Black communities around the country. A collection of speeches covers many aspects of the department. Of particular note are speeches by William Hunton on the growth and prospects of the department and by Booker T. Washington on the Y's student work. Monthly reports of national secretaries (1901-1946) are one the largest series of departmental records in the collection and cover topics such as meetings attended, establishing associations and branches, fundraising, and staffing. Secretarial newsletters (1902-1929) cover similar topics. There are also reports on social conditions in various cities where the YMCA was considering expanding, and a series of correspondence and reports concerning conditions and experiences of African American soldiers during World War I.

The collection also includes correspondence, reports, newsletters, and other promotional materials from Black YMCAs around the country. Local promotional materials include handbills, event programs, pamphlets, and newsletters from various associations, including Harlem, New York; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Toledo, Ohio.

A series of subject files includes material on other YMCA departments and outside organizations with which the YMCA Colored Men's Department worked. Among the best documented of these organizations is the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a group founded by YMCA officials and church ministers to address racial tensions following the return of African American World War I veterans.


  • 1871-1946.


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

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YMCA work with and by African Americans began in 1853 when Anthony Bowen established the first "Colored" (as it was referred to at the time) association in Washington D.C. As Anthony Bowen's work in the 1850s indicates, African Americans embraced the YMCA early on. In the YMCA, Black leaders saw not only a means of providing a wholesome, Christian, environment for young men, but through educational and leadership opportunities, a means for racial advancement.

Social and financial conditions for Black people made it difficult for the movement to grow very quickly. Nevertheless, by the late 1860s, the YMCA found a firm foothold in the community with associations established in New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Harrisburg, Pa. In 1867, E. V. C. Eato of New York City became the first Black delegate to attend the YMCA's annual convention. There were 36 Black associations (two-thirds of which were in historically Black academic institutions) in 1890 when a national "Colored Work" Department was created under the leadership of William Hunton. Jesse Moorland and Channing Tobias later succeeded him as senior secretaries of the department.

In 1910, the Black YMCA movement was given a boost when philanthropist Julius Rosenwald offered financial help to black communities wanting to build YMCAs. Black leaders in 24 cities took advantage of the offer and constructed buildings in the 1910s and 1920s. The program suffered some financial difficulties during the depression, but the number of local associations decreased only slightly, and by 1945, the last year that African American associations were reported as a separate category, the YMCA listed a total of 84.

Although there were calls for an end to discrimination against Black people in the American YMCA movement almost from its beginnings, the effort gained more momentum in the 1920s. During World War I, the YMCA sent workers to France to provide relief to soldiers. This work was carried out on a segregated basis, with both Black men and women serving Black army units both in the U.S. and in France. Postwar concerns in the United States that returning Black soldiers would rebel against the Jim Crow system led to the YMCAs participating in a Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which operated throughout the 1920s in an attempt to ease racial tensions. But despite a growing recognition that change was inevitable, real progress was slow to come. With the rise of Hitler during the 1930s and 1940s, additional pressure was created by embarrassing comparisons between segregation in the United States and anti-Semitism in Germany. Increasingly vocal protests came from African American World War I and II veterans no longer willing to fight the Nazi regime and its theory of a superior race in Europe and remain content to live with policies supporting the same theory in their own land. The growing realization that racial discrimination was incompatible with the YMCA's Christian ideals forced a reexamination among its white leaders of the YMCA's Jim Crow policies, despite fears that desegregation would split the organization.

Segregation of YMCAs as a national policy ended in 1946 when the National Council passed a resolution calling for local associations to "work steadfastly toward the goal of eliminating all racial discriminations," dissolved the Colored Work Department and the abolished racial designations in all its publications. The YMCA continued work towards the promotion of interracial policies within the YMCA and to provide support and services to the African American community under the auspices of various commissions and committees.


5.2 Linear Feet (12 boxes and 1 oversize folder)


Reports, correspondence, publications, and other records of the Colored Work Department and predecessor programs, established as avenues for African American participation in and service to the YMCA.


These documents are organized into the following sections:

  1. Background Information
  2. Correspondence, Reports, and Minutes
  3. Conferences
  4. Speeches, Articles, Pamphlets, and Newsletters
  5. Financial Records
  6. Local Black Association Records
  7. Subject Files


The following related materials are separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives:

Interracial Programs records, 1947-1980: Records describing the YMCA's work with the African American community and its work in interracial issues after 1946.

Leo B. Marsh papers, 1944-1969: Papers of a prominent Black leader in the YMCA movement who served as director of YMCAs in Toledo and Columbus, Ohio, association executive secretary of the Central Atlantic Area, and assistant executive director of the National Board.

Channing H. Tobias papers, 1882-1960: Papers of a prominent Black leader in the YMCA movement who served as senior secretary of the Colored Work Department from 1923 to 1946.

Biographical files: The YMCA Archives' series of biographical files include biographical sketches, newspaper clippings, and small collections of the personal papers of numerous leaders and individuals involved in the Black YMCA movement, including Leo Marsh, Channing Tobias, and Julius Rosenwald.

Student Work records: Includes records documenting the YMCAs established at historically black colleges and universities.

Armed Services Records: The City USO Histories series includes histories of Black USOs around the country.

Mjagkij, Nina. Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946.

Note on Language in the Collection and this Guide

Please note that some of the descriptive language found in this collection guide reflects and re-uses the words and ideas of the people and organizations that created the material. Historical records represent the opinions and actions of their creators and the society in which they were produced. This historical language was retained in cases where we believe it provides important context about the materials, is a Library of Congress Subject Heading, or is the official title of an item, organization, or event. As such, please be aware that this material and the guide describing it contains racial and other language and/or imagery that is outdated, offensive and/or harmful.

Processing Information:

Catalog Record ID number: 3744036

Processed by: David Carmichael; Jessica Dagen and Lara Friedman~Shedlov, 2003.

Material was substantially rearranged and reboxed in 2003. Post-1946 records which were formerly interfiled with Colored Work Department records have been separately cataloged as Interracial Program records.

An Inventory of Its Records
Finding aid prepared by Lara Friedman-Shedlov.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • 2021-11-24: Language was changed to reflect more current and respectful terminology and conventions, e.g. capitalization of the word "Black" in reference to people, and eliminating the use of the term "Black" as a noun referring to people. Small edits were also made to the historical background note to adjust the tone and reduce aggrandizing language. A content warning note was also added regarding language that was retained.

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area