In 1826, at age 17, Anthony Bowen was freed from slavery in Prince George's County. For the next 40 years, he lived in Southwest Washington. With money, he bought the freedom of a woman who would be his wife, and with money he bought the freedom of his sister and her five children. With faith, he created a church, a mission, a day school, the first public school for blacks and, in 1853, the first YMCA for blacks.
This is Black History Month. You should know what they have done to Anthony Bowen's Y. They've closed it. Alive Tuesday afternoon, dead that night. Anthony Bowen Y--where Howard University's basketball team practiced 50 years ago, where Elgin Baylor once played pickup ball, where Cardozo High's track stars worked out on the banked track, where Fats Walker taught street urchins to swim--the Anthony Bowen Y is closed.
The central-office accountants at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington say the Bowen Y at 1816 12th St. NW has lost $82,000 in 10 years. They also say the grand old building, for which Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone, has a leaking roof destroying the place. It is, they say, a firetrap of criminal magnitude.
People who love Bowen don't buy that. William Rumsey, chairman of the Bowen management committee, says inspectors found 48 fire code violations. None is serious, he says. "Housekeeping, bellyaching," Rumsey shouts. "These are no reasons to close a building."
Rumsey's Bowen committee drafted a letter Thursday to the big bosses in their luxurious offices downtown. The YMCA, concerned about $8,200 a year at Bowen, spent $5.3 million for a spiffy new spa downtown. They admit it's plush, but they say anybody can use it. Anyone earning less than $14,000 a year doesn't pay the initiation fee of $200 and pays only half the monthly dues, maybe $15 a month.
What a deal. Heaven only knows how many street urchins are taking advantage of the deal to sit in a sauna next to a Connecticut Avenue lawyer. It costs a kid $5 a year at Bowen.
Anyway, the Bowen letter asked the big bosses to reconsider. "All we're asking is, 'Let us go in with architects and contractors, at our expense, and make a true assessment of the fire department mandates and correct them,' " Rumsey says.
The big bosses aren't impressed.
"My personal opinion is that the decision is irreversible," says Tom Hargrave, president of the local YMCA. "The board just felt that the safety of the children is paramount."
What needs to be done, Hargrave says, is to move the Bowen Y to "a bridge community."
He means a community with enough people who can pay country-clubbish dues to make it possible to help those people who can't pay initiation fees and monthly dues.
He means a community where the Y might have a six-month waiting list for memberships, as it does at its downtown spa.
Mostly, he means goodbye to the building that now carries Anthony Bowen's name.
It will be a shame if something can't be done. Rumsey would not send his neighbors' children into a firetrap any more than Hargrave would. The Shaw community is outraged, Rumsey says, and people without the money to give have offered to give it to Bowen.
It would be wonderful if the accountants would wait a minute. Give Shaw a minute to solve the problems. Talk of abandoning Bowen began seriously two years ago. Surely, Shaw deserves a minute to show it cares deeply about the Y that has meant so much so long.
It is a four-story building with 32 dormitory rooms on the top two floors. Now those rooms are closed off, but once they were rented at $10 a month to Howard students who had nowhere else to go. They ate in the first-floor cafeteria.
T. Wilkins Davis, a physician, met his future wife at the Bowen Y.
They returned for their 25th anniversary.
Instead of bringing presents, guests gave a total of $6,000 to the Y.
"It was home away from home for young Negro men who came to Washington to seek employment or go to school," says retired colonel Wes Hamilton, who at 95 is filled with youthful exasperation at the big bosses.
"On the second floor," Hamilton says, "there was an assembly room for forums. The NAACP started there. Churches organized there. To think they've closed it down, that's a crime. I'm in that building all the time. It's not about to tumble down."
No longer is Bowen the cultural gathering spot of Shaw, because time has diminished the neighborhood. Yet Bowen serves the kind of desperate need that YMCAs traditionally have met. To move to a "bridge" community would be to abandon Anthony Bowen's heritage when it needs support.
What can be done? Hargrave says another $100,000 would not make the building safe. When someone mentioned Bowen's history, the boss said, "This board will not be blackmailed by that kind of thing." He says the board has $500,000 for a replacement for Bowen, and to spend another $100,000 on the old place would be a waste.
Rumsey says Bowen could be made workable again for much less than $100,000. Architects and contractors have offered free help. "A blind man called me on the radio and wanted to send $25 for Bowen," Rumsey says.
"Oh, the happiness you see in that gym," says the chairman, who has been at Bowen as child, student and volunteer for 40 years. "They have those self-starting games. Kids who could go one more block and be at 13th and T with the prostitutes and drugs, they come to Bowen and play basketball."
Rumsey laughs out loud. "We blacks aren't better basketball players than whites because we are genetically superior. We are better because we practice more. You come to Bowen on a hot summer afternoon, when it's smelling like a wet day in the lions' cage, you'll see basketball."
If the Bowen Y needs fixing up, Rumsey says, he only asks the big bosses to tell him what ought to be done.
"We would take our coats off," he says, "and do it ourselves."
Which is the way Anthony Bowen did it 129 years ago.