- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On the 1800 block of 12th Street in Northwest there is a building where organizations have been serving the community for more than 100 years.

What was once the 12th Street YMCA and later the Anthony Bowen YMCA became the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in 2000. The name has changed, but the mission has stayed the same.

“We are taking the past to meet the present as we extend into the future,” said Thomasina Yearwood, executive director of the Marshall Center.

On Thursday, a ceremony will honor Justice Thurgood Marshall. And in a February commemorative ceremony, the original 12th Street YMCA cornerstone, housing a time capsule, was reset in the restored structure.

Mrs. Yearwood said the latter gesture marked the Marshall Center’s rededication to the community, which is anchored by the historic U Street corridor, and its mission of serving the needs of children and adults in the Shaw/Columbia Heights community.

The building houses nine nonprofit organizations that provide education and outreach services to D.C. youths and families, including the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative, the Information, Knowledge & Growth (IKG) Cultural Resource Center, the national and D.C. chapters of Concerned Black Men, the SunRise Academy, the 21st Century School Fund, Critical Exposure and the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust Inc.

“The center is doing a lot for our young people through education and other programs, and it provides a safe haven for them,” said Cissy Marshall, the widow of Justice Marshall.

According to a YMCA of Metropolitan Washington publication, the first YMCA for blacks was founded in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, at his home in Southwest, which is the site of L’Enfant Plaza today.

In 1907, the property at 1816 12th St. NW was purchased and a year later in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the 12th Street YMCA.

In 1973, it was rededicated and officially renamed the Anthony Bowen YMCA. The Anthony Bowen YMCA on 12th Street was closed in 1983, but it is being rebuilt in the 1300 block of W Street.

In its heyday, the 12th Street YMCA was a starting point for many successful men, including former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson; radio and television personality Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green; the first D.C. congressional delegate, the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy; Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who also played for the Detroit Pistons; Elgin Baylor, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers; Willie Wood, who played for the Green Bay Packers; and Maury Wills, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Tony Papalino” Browne remembered how he was influenced by the dedicated coaches.

“The nurturing, discipline and training that I received contributed to whatever successes I have had in life,” Mr. Browne said. He is also happy that the building where he once played ball was dedicated to such a great man as Justice Marshall.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said, “If we didn’t play on the Y team, we certainly knew about the great athletes that were on the team.”

“Of course, we were saddened when the [Anthony Bowen] Y closed,” the D.C. native said, “but we were all proud when the building was designated a national historical site … by the U.S. Department of Interior and reopened as the Thurgood Marshall Center in 2000.”

This historical sanctuary also served as a rare place to stay for many blacks who traveled and could not afford to pay hotel rates or were excluded from other facilities because of their race.

The prominent visitors included Justice Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court judge; William H. Hastie, the first black judge on a federal appeals court and governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands; poet Langston Hughes; and composer Duke Ellington.

In keeping with the 12th Street Y/Anthony Bowen YMCA’s stated mission, Mrs. Yearwood said, the Thurgood Marshall Center’s mission is “to struggle for equality, social and economic justice through the engagement of children, youth, individuals and families.”

“Everyday is a privilege and an honor, to work here in these hallowed grounds,” said Mrs. Yearwood.

Sandra Butler Truesdale, owner of Emma Mae Gallery, is a freelance writer living in the District.

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