Organizations: Butler Street YMCA
An Atlanta First: The Atlanta police force was one of the first city government departments to be integrated in the 1960s by then-Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. Back then, however, integration didn’t mean black and white officers serving side by side, says Butler Street YMCA President and CEO Stewart Williams. The Butler Street Y was asked to operate as the first precinct station for black police officers.
Perhaps that sort of civic involvement is not what comes first to mind when you think about a typical local Y. But since its founding in 1894, the Butler Street Y has been a hub of political life for Atlanta and Georgia. The Y started traditionally enough as a place for African-American men to meet and study the Bible.
Power Base: By 1945, the Butler Street Y had veered from its traditional roots. With African-American men excluded from civic organizations, a group from the Y and from Omega Psi Phi fraternity formed the Hungry Club Forum in order to advance African-American men, Williams says. “The forum was a significant political power base,” because it offered a place where white politicians who wanted the support of the African-American community could speak.
The forum originally met in secret, due to the climate of the time, Williams says. It wasn’t popular for white people to be seen with black people, and “could be political suicide for whites to be seen supporting civil rights.”
Today, the open and diverse Hungry Club Forum meets monthly from October through June. The first meeting of the season always features the sitting Atlanta mayor as speaker. Every mayor since 1945 has spoken at the forum, Williams says. Other speakers have included Pulitzer Prize winning author Langs-ton Hughes, who was a member of Omega Psi Phi and one of the first forum speakers. One of the prized possessions of the Y is the hand-written letter from Hughes accepting the offer to speak, Williams says.
Speakers: The list of people who have spoken at the forum includes Drs. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sr., Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan and most Georgia governors. Dr. King, Jr. and Jordan were members of the Y in their youth.
In addition to political and civic activities, Butler Street and its three other facilities offer recreational and community programs and summer day camp and sleep-away camp at a Lake Allatoona location.
Butler Street may not be a traditional YMCA, but as Williams says, there really is no such thing as a traditional Y, “If you’ve seen one YMCA, you’ve seen one YMCA.” – Karen Kennedy