Black History Month | YMCA DC

Black History Month

February is Black History Month/ National African American History month, as established in 1976 by U.S. President Gerald Ford to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” He urged his fellow citizens to join him ‘in tribute to Black History Month and the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.”

Although the notable achievements of Black Americans are too bountiful, and sadly often undocumented, to enumerate in one month, this celebration provides a snapshot of remarkable leadership of our region, and our country. Black women have made significant contributions to our Ys, our communities, and our country. This year, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington is celebrating Black women and their achievements over the years, including the historic swearing-in of our country’s first Black Vice-President.

The women featured on this page have made history. Perhaps even more importantly, their legacy continues to inspire future generations. Each week, throughout the course of this month, this page will be updated to feature leaders from our past and those we look forward to leading in our future.

The first day of Black History Month in 2021 will provide a starting point to reflect on two significant developments in our Y’s nearly 169-year history and legacy relative to the African American experience in our movement.

In 1853, the first YMCA open to Black individuals was organized in Washington, D.C., in reflection of the need to serve the growing African-American community not permitted to join the YMCA of the City of Washington which was established in 1852. Its founder, Anthony Bowen, was a former slave from Maryland and transformed his life to become the first Black Patent Clerk for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His life-long dedication to the advancement of African Americans in social, educational, and religious respects remains revered today. Decades later, in 1905, the Y he established was reorganized as the YMCA Anthony Bowen branch of the YMCA of the City of Washington, the Association known today as the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

Amanda Gormon:

At age 15, the California-born Ms. Gormon  became a youth delegate for the United Nations, and three years later she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit focused on youth leadership and writing. It is perhaps fitting that the ’20 Harvard alum graduate with a degree in sociology spoke of civil justice and peace while being the youngest Inaugural poet at the Jan. 2021 United States Presidential event. Her Feb. 2021 (football) Super Bowl poem recitation was the 55-year old U.S. event’s first and highlighted teachers, volunteers and those in the medical field aiding others during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The award-winning author of multiple publications is the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate.

Maya Angelou:

The world-renowned writer’s story began in 1928 in Missouri and would cover 86 chapters, many of which included award-winning poetry, screenplays and deeply personal autobiographical work reflecting the struggles of women and African Americans. At the age of 16, she became the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, which may have been a factoid little known to the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X who she was directly connected with during her civil rights activist activities. She would go on to be an actor, director and producer; hold over 50 honorary degrees; and learn multiple languages in spite of a difficult high school graduation timeline paired with motherhood and never having attended college. In 1991, she was honored with a lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at North Carolina’s Wake Forest.

Phillis Wheatly:

Her West African childhood was abruptly and harshly diverted when, c. 1760, she was sold into slavery and sent to Boston, U.S.A. Although the education of slaves was heavily discouraged during the era of the American Revolutionary War, her slave-owning family encouraged it and, upon discovery of her writing talents, sent her to London to seek its greater marketability there. The publication of her collection of poetry in 1773 earned her the honor of becoming the first African-American to do so, and one of the first American women to do the same, as well as coinciding with her emancipation. In spite of notoriety by her original patron Selina Hastings the Countess of Huntingdon, George Washington, John Hancock, Voltaire and John Paul Jones, she would pass on from illness at age 31 following a decline in support, a penniless marriage and a most challenged motherhood.

Henrietta Lacks:

Born in 1920 in South Central Virginia to a tobacco-farming extended family, she was a wife and mother by the time she moved closer to Baltimore, MD during the middle of the Great Migration. Around two years of an underlying medical issue preceded her becoming fully beset with a medical anomaly which would confound Johns Hopkins doctors and unfortunately claim her life in 1951 at the age of 31. “HeLa cells” taken from her rapidly growing cancerous tumor have since been used in global scientific research including three Nobel Prize projects, COVID-19 tests, as well as AIDS and cancer research. Only in 2013, following a lawsuit, would any member of the Lacks family become included in decisions with regards to the use of the stored genome data which originated from her cells.

Madame C.J. Walker:

The entrepreneurial Mrs. Walker (1867-1919) created a hair care enterprise. She rose from poverty to proud washerwoman to later become the nation’s first African-American female multi-millionaire. She created a pathway for her peers to earn their own funds and job experience. Her philanthropic and volunteer interests included the Colored YMCA of Indianapolis, NACW, NAACP, St. Paul’s AME Church and many others.

Harriet Tubman:

A NPS Historical Park in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland honors her life, which began in 1822 within an enslaved family. She fled to gain freedom, following skills and connections she developed, but a strong will to provide the same for others drove her to quickly become a lead conductor on the Underground Railroad. Her selfless assistance of over 65 others, as well as her long-time spiritual calling, guided her adult life as a leading abolitionist until her 1913 passing in Central New York. The $20 U.S. currency bill is actively being updated from providing the image of former U.S. President, War of 1812 General and enslaver Andrew Jackson to one of Harriet Tubman to uplift her achievements and better reflect the diversity and dedication of America’s people.

In 2001, Angie L. Reese-Hawkins became the first female and only second African-American to serve as the President and Chief Executive Officer within the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s then 149-year history. Under her leadership, a multi-year process resurrected the YMCA Anthony Bowen branch in the historic Shaw community in the District of Columbia. The 2013 ribbon cutting and the more recent street naming are a symbol of hope for a better future in what was once a community of great disparity, where the echoes of that disparity are still felt today. The design of the Y and the programs it provides intentionally build on the Black achievement and excellence legacy left by Rev. Anthony Bowen.

Y leaders around the globe are encouraged by her consistent and passionate commitment to the people of our region and their needs. Her awards and milestones are examples of our Association’s mission to strengthen our community and provide opportunities for all.