Determined visionaries break racial barriers

When it first emerged in the United States in 1852, the YMCA excluded blacks from membership in white branches. Although they were encouraged to form their own associations on “separate but equal” terms, it wasn’t as easy as it may have sounded.

However, in 1853 in Washington, D.C., the first YMCA for African Americans was founded by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave. For nearly the first forty years of its existence, the “Colored” YMCA and their activities were restricted to meetings in rented space, donated rooms and members’ living rooms.

Image of Anthony Bowen
Anthony Bowen

Born a slave on October 8, 1809, in Prince George’s County, MD, on the estate of William Bradley, Bowen was one of four children of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bowen. In 1826, he bought his freedom and started the first black YMCA. He moved to the southwest section of Washington.

The Senate Avenue YMCA

Almost 50 years later, African-American leaders in Indianapolis formed the Young Men’s Prayer Band in 1900 which merged into a “Colored” YMCA. By 1910, it became a branch of the city YMCA. Black and white leaders helped raise funds for a new building which opened as the Senate Avenue YMCA in 1913. Booker T. Washington dedicated the building and Faburn DeFrantz led it from 1916-1951. It became one of the largest black YMCAs in the U.S.

Image of Senate Ave YMCA
Photo credit: Indiana Historical Bureau

During the dedication of the Senate Avenue YMCA, Booker T. Washington stated, “I am proud of being a member of the Negro race and never more so than tonight. I spurn the men who sympathize with me because I am a member of the Negro race. We have work to do and difficulties to overcome . . . Let the white people know about the good deeds in our race. In too many cases white people hear only of crime. They do not hear about the hard-working, industrious, sober colored men, and Indianapolis has many of the latter class.”

The Senate Avenue YMCA provided facilities for black men who had been excluded from the central organization. But, despite those earlier barriers, determined visionaries like Thomas Taylor and Faburn Defrantz would become two of the most influential black YMCA executives in the country.

Monster Meetings at Senate Avenue YMCA

To understand the influence of the Senate Avenue YMCA, we need to go right back to the very beginning of the branch, to the establishment of Monster Meetings.

The roots of the Senate Avenue YMCA Monster Meetings can be traced to the very early years of the Indianapolis Colored YMCA, and executive secretary Thomas Taylor. He instituted public forums where men, and later women, could gather on Sunday afternoons between November and March. Attendees could listen to lectures on a wide variety of topics.

Originally, Taylor wanted to call the forums “Big Meetings” but the proposal was rejected by the Central YMCA board because their annual meeting was already being called the Big Meeting. So, Taylor one-upped them and labeled his forum series the “Monster Meetings.”

Remaining Awake Through a Revolution

In 1958 at the Senate Avenue YMCA in downtown Indianapolis, Martin Luther King Jr. made an appearance on the Monster Meeting roster with a speech entitled “Remaining Awake through a Revolution.” Due to intense interest in King’s lecture, organizers moved the event to Cadle Tabernacle. This location could accommodate a larger audience. An estimated 4,000 people attended the rousing speech that focused on the struggle for equality.

This excerpt is from Dr. King’s speech:

“A new age of justice is challenging us to love our oppressors . . . We must not assume this new freedom with attitudes of bitterness and recrimination, for, if we do, the new age will be nothing but a duplicate of the old one . . . A new world is being born, and the old world will die. We must be prepared for the new world to come. Segregation is nothing but slavery covered up with certain niceties and complexities. If our democracy is to live, segregation must die . . . Use love. Love is a sure winner. Remember that as Christians we are working with God. If we do it the way God wants us to do it, we will be able to sing with pride, ‘My Country ‘tis of thee’ for Freedom must ring from every mountainside.”

Other notable Monster Meeting speakers

Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the first African American president of Howard University; Dr. George Washington Carver, Director of agricultural research and professor of chemistry at Tuskegee University; NAACP leader, Walter White; professors; and famous athletes such as Olympic gold medalist track star Jesse Owens.