Early Chicago: The Wabash Avenue YMCA

The Wabash Avenue YMCA

(Source: YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago)

For Southern immigrants during the Great Migration, Chicago's Wabash Avenue YMCA was a much needed haven in the middle of a strange and potentially hostile city. At the YMCA, new arrivals could find housing, education, vocational training, and health care.

Formally dedicated on June 15, 1913, an executive at the Metropolitan YMCA in Chicago stated that "the only hope for the 'new' Negro in Chicago was Quinn Chapel and the YMCA at 3763 S. Wabash Avenue."

Bronzeville's black residents also flocked to the Wabash YMCA to enjoy programs and services. Between 1926 and 1927 alone, 400,000 people passed through the South Side building's doors. Music clubs, picnics, lectures, social clubs, bible study, athletic teams, and health campaigns were just a few of the offerings at the YMCA. During an era of formal and informal segregation, when blacks were limited to organizations in their communities, the YMCA was a welcome, and necessary, addition to the neighborhood.

To help get the YMCA built, the Bronzeville community raised $19,000. The New York Times reported that it was "the largest amount ever collected from Negroes for such a purpose." Julius Rosenwald, millionaire president of Sears Roebuck & Co., contributed $25,000 as part of his offer to give that sum to any city willing to raise $75,000 to build a YMCA in a black community.

The Wasbash Avenue YMCA closed in 1970 due to neighborhood decline, but reopened in 2000 after a $9 million renovation. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.