Recently, the New York Times ran this vivid collection of memories of the black YMCA in Evanston (IL). It prompts an interesting set of adjectives: touching, bittersweet, shaming.
Touching, because of the affectionate nostalgia that shone in every recollection. Bittersweet, since the world of these memories is gone forever. Shame at the segregation that made a separate Y necessary for Evanston’s black citizens.
Evanston was not alone in this. The black citizens of my hometown of Montclair, N.J., also had to create their own YMCA. By the time I moved to town a decade ago, the segregation was gone but the building remained, a branch of the main YMCA a mile north. It housed programs for toddlers and preschoolers and was called the “Little Y.” (A few years ago, it was demolished to make way for a new elementary school.)
A lot of the folks who took their kids there for Mommy and Me swimming were ignorant of the history. I remember the reaction that greeted me when I gave a factual answer to someone who wondered aloud about how the building came to be. First there was a look of shock. Then – “Are you sure? That seems really unlikely.”
Yet many, many towns have old segregation fault lines. Some are rather close to the surface, and in places where we think they aren’t supposed to be in the first place. (Relevant point: New Jersey schools were integrated by law in 1947, a lot later than I had supposed.)
It’s good that people are looking at these old buildings and institutions and asking about what they were and how they came to be. The Times story, as well as the stories told about my hometown Y, teach us that out of an insane situation came a heritage of achievement and treasured memories. I’m glad the history isn’t getting lost, even while I hope the circumstances that created it never happen again.