Religious leader and educator Anthony Bowen founded the first African American YMCA in 1853, but it took decades for the organization to secure a permanent home. President Theodore Roosevelt laid a cornerstone for what was originally called the 12th Street YMCA, which opened in 1912. The structure still stands at 1816 12th St. NW.
The Italian Renaissance-style building, designed by Booker T. Washington’s son-in-law, served as black Washington’s community center for much of the 20th century. It was where Langston Hughes wrote poetry, Thurgood Marshall designed legal strategies and John Thompson Jr. — who became Georgetown University’s basketball coach — shot hoops. It was renamed for Bowen in 1973.
By 1982, however, the pillar of the community was crumbling. The YMCA boarded up the building and decamped to its current location a few blocks away, which would open six years later. Neighbors determined to restore the original property banded together, according to Thomasina Yearwood, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Center, which currently operates the space.
In addition to housing 11 nonprofits, the national historic landmark also serves as a museum dedicated to the groundbreaking YMCA branch. There are photos of children playing pool, reading and learning woodworking in the Y’s heyday. One of the original dorm rooms has been preserved and furnished to look the way it did before 1950. The gymnasium still provides a place for fitness activities.
“It’s so special to walk into this building each day,” says Yearwood, who strives to maintain the Bowen legacy by continuing to serve the needs of the Shaw community. The center is seeking funding for a healthful-lifestyles program for kids focused on activity and nutrition.
Visitors are welcome to examine the exhibits for free during the center’s business hours: Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. More information is available at www.thurgoodmarshallcenter.org.
— Vicky Hallett