City Within a City
— Greater U Street Heritage Trail —
The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage occupies the historic Italian Renaissance-style building of the 12th Street YMCA, known after 1972 as the Anthony Bowen YMCA.
The 12th Street YMCA was the first African American YMCA in the nation, formed in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a former slave who became a civic leader in the nation's capital and a member of the city's Common Council. This YMCA met in various places for decades until it raised $100,000 to build this structure between 1907 and 1912. The architect was Sidney W. Pittman, one of America's first African American architects, and the son-in-Law of Booker T. Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1908.
The 12th Street YMCA became a community center for Black Washingtonians from around the city. It was a place to play sports, learn to swim, meet friends, start organizations and mobilize for a cause, including the planning of important civil rights initiatives. For many, including travelers in segregated Washington and Howard University students, the Y dormitories were a home away from home. For youth, it was a place to find role models.
Poet Langston Hughes lived here in the early 1920s while he was writing his first poetry. Dr. Charles Drew, who pioneered the preservation of blood plasma, was an active member. The basketball skills of Coach John Thompson of Georgetown University were discovered here, and world heavyweight champion Joe Louis was a frequent visitor.
Today, the building, owned by The Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, is the headquarters of the Shaw Heritage Trust, For Love of Children and other organizations that make it, once again, a center of community activity. It is named for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who met here with colleagues to develop legal strategies for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education
civil rights case. The U Street/Shaw Heritage Museum and Exhibitions just inside the front door will tell you more.
[Photo captions, front
[The 12th Street YMCA.] (The Historical Society of Washington, DC.
Anthony Bowen. (Anacostia Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
President Theodore Roosevelt at the cornerstone laying in 1908, captured on film by noted African American photographer Addison Scurlock. (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
Boys exercise in the gymnasium in 1913 (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
). Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, right, was a frequent visitor to the Y. (The Historical Society of Washington, DC.
). The poet Langston Hughes, far right, lived here in the early 1920s. (National Portrait Gallery.
Thurgood Marshall (Library of Congress.
[Meeting Poster, WWII:] "Colored Americans of Washington, D.C.,
Attend War Workers
Thurs., October 28, 1943
? at Y.M.C.A. Auditorium
1816 12th Street, N.W. ?"
(Henry P. Whitehead Collection.)
[Photo caption on reverse
The spacious front hall and reception desk of the original 12th Street YMCA, seen here in 1912, have been restored to their former elegance, as have other historic rooms in this fine Italianate building, now the home of the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.
(Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.