Cedar Branch YMCA

The Cedar Branch YMCA, located at Cedar Avenue and East 76th Street, always helped the young men in its community even with often limited resources. The first Cedar Branch YMCA building was constructed in 1879 and was rented from the Lend-a-Hand Mission in 1921. The YMCA purchased the building two years later along with an adjoining lot that was donated by John L. Severance and Mrs. F.F. Prentiss. The Cedar Branch was a very progressive branch of the YMCA because although the Cedar Branch YMCA catered to African American men, it also permitted white men to join on an unsegregated basis. Many believed that the YMCA in Glenville was the first interracial YMCA branch in Ohio; however, Mrs. Celeste Strode Richie was a bookkeeper and stenographer from 1923 to 1925 at the Cedar Branch YMCA and she claimed that the Cedar Branch was interracial even back in the 1920s. When she worked at the Cedar Branch, Capt. Charles Frye oversaw the branch, and he had both African American and white staff. In addition, the dormitories at the Cedar Branch had men of all nationalities and continued to permit all men regardless of their race throughout the mid-20th century. Its welcoming presence explains why it was a fixture in the Green Book.

This is the original Cedar Branch YMCA building that was constructed in 1879. | Source: Call & Post, April 14, 1938.

Despite the Cedar Branch’s progressive nature, it had not been able to serve all the needs of its community, so funding needed to be raised to ensure that it provided adequate amenities. During the Great Depression, YMCA donations across the country were on the decline. All Cleveland YMCA buildings needed to be updated, so all the branches came together to host a drive with the aim of raising $1.6 million with 22 percent of that figure going to the Cedar Branch. Although the new Cedar Branch building was erected in 1942 in the same spot as the original 1879 building, it still did not have a gym, swimming pool, or a dormitory in 1944. It was important that the Cedar Branch have these amenities because African American members were not permitted to go to white YMCA branches in Cleveland despite allowing white members to use their facilities.

The Cedar Branch YMCA was in stark contrast to the Central Branch YMCA that routinely discriminated against African American men and only permitted white men. Not only were African American men barred from staying the night at the Central Branch YMCA, black men, such as Calvin Jackson, on furlough during World War II were not even allowed to work out at the gymnasium. This was an issue because the Cedar Branch YMCA did not yet have a gymnasium available to its members and when Jackson confronted the Executive Secretary for the Central Branch, Arthus Clulee, about this very problem, Clulee stated he felt bad about turning black servicemen away. However, he justified his lack of service by claiming that although he was not personally against permitting African Americans in the Central Branch YMCA, 12,000 white patrons pay their membership fees and would be outraged if the branch allowed African Americans to use their facilities in any capacity. Despite the Cedar Branch members being turned away at the Central Branch, the Central Branch members would routinely use the facilities at Cedar Branch including the dormitory.

Many thought that it was strange that the Cedar Branch lacked dormitories and exercise facilities because of the YMCA’s worldwide reputation for providing clean fun, exercise, and safe lodging for travelers. As a result, the Cedar Y’ Centennial Building Fund Campaign asked the community to donate money so that they could reach their goal of $25,000 and build a second unit to the building that would provide much needed lodging and gym equipment. The campaign not only met this ambitious goal, but also surpassed it by raising $28,395 for the new gym, health room, swimming pool, and fifteen dormitories. The new Cedar Branch YMCA and its amenities cost $250,000.

This is a drawing of one of the plans for the addition to the Cedar Branch YMCA. | Source: Call & Post, May 13, 1944.

After the renovations, the Cedar Branch provided African American men a safe and clean place to stay in Cleveland. In some cases, the Cedar Branch was dedicated to helping young men, such as Robert Franklin who was a 19-year-old former sharecropper in 1947 seeking work opportunities in Cleveland. Franklin had a difficult time finding a job but eventually found a job at a bowling alley. However, he lost his job the first day he worked there after a woman complained about his work being inadequate. Down on his luck, he spoke to the Cedar Branch YMCA executive secretary, C.W. Hawkins, who provided him a safe place to sleep and meals at the Cedar Branch. While at the YMCA, he got job advice and looked for work at the foundries and steel mills with no luck. Many foundries were laying people off, but he knew he had to find a job so that he did not impose on C.W. Hawkins kindness. C.W. Hawkins still had faith that he would find a job and pay back his generosity. Franklin was planning to possibly go to Chicago where there may be more work opportunities and more public transportation options, but Hawkins was able to get him a job at the National Malleable Company. This is just one example of the men the Cedar Branch YMCA housed, fed, and helped find a job in Cleveland.

The Cedar Branch YMCA catered to African American men when other Cleveland branches of the YMCA excluded them. Even when the branch did not have a wide array of services, it still shared the little resources it had with any men that walked through the door. Once the branch acquired more resources, it became an even greater asset to Cleveland men who needed a place to spend the night or needed safe access to gym facilities. The Cedar Branch YMCA continued to serve the community through the late 1970s.

Front view of the Cedar Y in the 1940s | Cemco Cards | Source: Springfield College Archives and Special Collections, Digital Commonwealth, CC BY-NC-SA

Green Book Details

Cedar Branch YMCA appears in the Green Book from 1938 to 1967 (with the exception of 1947) at E. 76th St. & Cedar under the category Hotels.

Resources

  • Bob, William. “Sharecropper is Disillusioned in Five-Day Quest for Employment.” Call and Post. November 8, 1947.
  • Brent, Odis. “Door Close to Negro Soldiers at Central ‘Y.’” Call and Post. August 28, 1943.
  • “Cedar “Y” Campaign Workers Hold Victory Meeting.” Call and Post. June 24, 1944.
  • “Citizens Join in Campaign for New Cedar Y Building.” Call and Post. February 24, 1938.
  • Goldwasser, Jos. “Peerless Points Out: Future of the Cedar ‘Y’ Depends on You!” Call and Post. May 27, 1944.
  • Mjagkij, Nina. “8: From Depression to Desegregation, 1926-1946.” In Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, 115-127. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
  • “Reason for Newest Cedar ‘Y’ Drive.” Call and Post. May 13, 1944.
  • Richie, Celeste. “Letter Box.” Call and Post. June 3, 1950.
  • “Search Results [Cedar Branch YMCA].” Cleveland Memory. https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/search/searchterm/Cedar%20Branch%20YMCA.
  • “Set $341,115 as Cost of New Cedar Y.M.C.A. Building.” Call and Post. April 14, 1938.
  • “Sharecropper Goes to Work.” Call and Post. November 15, 1947.
  • “Young Men’s Christian Assn.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. https://case.edu/ech/articles/y/young-mens-christian-assn.
77th & Cedar (First listed in Green Book at E. 76th St. & Cedar)

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