Group Looks to Return Rescue Mission Building to Center for Black Life

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A coalition of community leaders wants to ensure that the building once known as the West Federal YMCA has a future that befits its legacy as a center for Black life and culture in the city.

At a press conference Wednesday, coalition members said they want to find a new owner for the building who will honor and restore its prominent role in the Black community.

The structure currently houses Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley. The mission will leave the building at 962 Martin Luther King Blvd. next year when it moves to a new location.

Penny Wells of Sojourn to the Past civil rights group is part of the coalition, which she said is “working to raise awareness, build support and develop a viable plan for the community to save, restore and reuse the West Federal Y,” Wells said. “The site must continue to serve the community, speak to the people who built it, and connect the history of race relations and cultural development in Youngstown to current and future generations, a goal that is vital given the current state of race relations in our country.”

Wells is asking current and former residents to share their memories and stories of the West Federal Y. They can be emailed to her at pennywwells@sbcglobal.net and will be used to help carry out the goals for the building.

The coalition is not trying to raise money, Wells said, but it does have three objectives: raise awareness of the building’s historical importance, preserve the structure and have it listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and find a new owner who would restore it and give it a purpose that honors its past and benefits the Black community.

She mentioned Youngstown State University and the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority as possible good fits.

The landmark stone building opened in 1931 as a YMCA branch for Black residents. The YMCA of Youngstown closed it in 1974 and merged its programs with the Central Branch, downtown.

The building was sold for $1 that year to the Rescue Mission, which runs it as a shelter for those in need. The building will be emptied in the spring of 2021 when the mission moves to its new location, which is currently under construction about a mile north on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

In its 43 years as “The Black Y,” as it was known, the building hosted countless celebrations and life events that gave it an outsized role in the community. Prominent speakers would lecture there, and the lessons learned in the building shaped generations of future Black leaders, said Ben McGee of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and a member of the coalition.

Its construction was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which was contingent on the community raising another $75,000. Rosenwald was a part owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and Co.

The West Federal Y was one of 24 Black YMCAs in the country, said McGee. Twelve have since been demolished, 10 have been repurposed, and two remain as YMCAs, in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

All 24 received startup funding from the Rosenwald Fund, McGee noted.
The Black Y building was designed by Youngstown architects Barton E. Brooke and Harold R. Dyer in impressive Tudor gothic style.

McGee spoke of the building’s importance in everyday life.

“At the time it was in use, there were few if any gathering places available for Black people, so this became an important place,” McGee said. “There were meetings, lectures, social interactions of all sorts and sports activities, including swimming. Also, several prominent residents of this area, including (Civil Rights era newsman and publisher] Simeon Booker and Judge Nathaniel Jones spent time here.”

The sturdy building has several larger meeting rooms on its first floor, including a former billiard room that is now used as a chapel, and a swimming pool room that has since being floored over.

“It is important to know what this building once meant [to the Black community],” McGee said. “It was also a place where Black travelers could find a place to stay. It was in the Green Book.”

The Green Book was a segregation-era traveler’s guide for Black citizens that listed restaurants and lodgings where they were not prohibited from entering.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said that his mother, a long-time YMCA employee, used to work in the building.

Pictured: The exterior of the building at 962 Martin Luther King Blvd. features an engraved stone archway that reveals its original use as a YMCA for Black residents. It has been used as a mission for the homeless since 1974, and will be left empty next year when Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley moves to a new location.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.