ATLANTA – The historic Butler Street YMCA, a linchpin of Atlanta’s black community for generations, will end its 118-year-old run in Atlanta starting next month, officials told The Atlanta Voice this week.
Starting Dec. 1, the Butler Street YMCA will no longer exist in Atlanta, board chairman Aislee Smith said, but board members and community leaders are creating a new community development corporation that would serve many of the civic functions of the Butler Street YMCA.
The decision was prompted in part by a decision of the national YMCA board to dissolve Butler Street’s YMCA charter on Oct. 25.
Smith said however, that the Butler Street YMCA board voted during a retreat last weekend to create a community development corporation that would continue and advance the group’s commitment to Atlanta’s black community.
“The Butler Street YMCA was started in 1894 during Atlanta’s segregated past so that African Americans could have a place to meet,” Smith said. “We no longer have that challenge in our community – but we face other challenges.
“The YMCA charter itself was constraining, hindering our efforts with community stakeholders to take on the emerging future of our existing community,” he added.
Board members announced in May that they had suspended all activities at the Butler Street YMCA and distributed notices to tenants of the downtown location telling them that they had until June 14 to find other lodging.
Smith said then that the suspension of activities did not mean the YMCA would close for good, saying instead that the group was “suspending the activities just so we can restructure.”
At that time, rumors had swirled for months that the historic YMCA – where civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. spent their youth – would shut down because of rising costs and declining revenue.
Board member Jerome Edmondson said then that the board was committed to controlling costs while still serving the organization’s longtime mission of serving the disenfranchised.
“Our goal, as the next generation, was to preserve [the center] and in order to do that, we had to stop its current hemorrhaging and the processes that were in place that weren’t working,” he said.
Edmonson said then that none of the residents living in the Y’s transitional housing would be left out in the cold, although residents still were moving out of the building on Thursday, some who said they had no place else to go.
Once touted as the “Black City Hall of Atlanta,” the Butler Street YMCA was the heart of Atlanta’s civil rights and political community for generations.
“The Butler Street Y was the place that the true leadership of our community revolved around,” said longtime civil rights activist and current SCLC president C.T. Vivian. “These were the guys who made the political decisions, for the whole community. The big decisions were actually made at the Y.”
Longtime journalist and political observer Maynard Eaton added:
“It was the most significant forum, place, laboratory, if you will, for any black journalist in this town,” said Eaton, now a media consultant. “It was the place to be if you wanted to know what was happening in the black community, especially during political season.”
Smith said the board is committed to maintaining the group’s longtime mission of service, saying the re-tooled organization will focus on three areas: social awareness, economic development and healthy living. He said the group will meet with key stakeholders and get community input before creating a final organizational structure.
“We really have to shore up our foundation and then at that point I think that you plant the seeds, which we’ve done, and start to cultivate them,” he said. “And as we cultivate them, we’ll see the harvest and the public will see for themselves.
“We have a number of things on our plate, including the possibility of a museum about the historic ‘Y’,” he added. “Civil rights have always played a prominent role in this organization, and it will continue to do so into our future role.”