By Barney Blakeney
The YMCA of Greater Charleston this week will break ground on a new facility in Berkeley County’s Cane Bay Community realizing a dream its founders never could have imagined, says Executive Director Paul Stoney. The late Charleston County School District teacher and administrator Nathaniel Washington taught me the fundamentals of organized basketball at the YMCA’s gym on Cannon Street. I’m one of tens of thousands of youth who learned sports, sportsmanship and many other lessons while growing into adulthood at the Y. Many others will continue to get that opportunity as well.
Like so many of us who grew up in and around the Y, we never really knew its history. Wasn’t important. Often in the midst of the trees, the wonder of the forest escapes you. As an Eastside kid, I didn’t wander west of King Street until I got into my adolescence.
The yards around the project rows in my old neighborhoods expanded to community centers like the Six Mile School’s ‘old building’ at Mary Ford School, Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church neighborhood center on America Street and Robert Gould Shaw Center on Mary Street. Swimming in the soot at ‘Burn Up Dock’ in the Cooper River gave me no clue of the history of Gadsden’s Wharf. We kids had no idea of the history surrounding us.
Playing ball at the Y and later attending dances there as a teenager I was oblivious to the history of the establishment. I use the term ‘establishment’ because the Y is more than a building or facility; it’s a part of my life. I never fully understood that until a recent conversation with Stoney about the expansion.
I think about the Y with a sense of guilt. As much as it’s given me, I haven’t been very faithful to the responsibility of giving it something back.
Every time I step on a basketball court, I think about learning the game at the Y. Years later I was asked to serve on its board of directors, an obligation I accepted half-heartedly and never fully committed to. Like Coach Washington who used the Y to teach me basketball, my life coach the late A.J. Clement Jr., used the Y to teach me some other skills.
Mr. Clement was an amazing gentleman. He was totally committed to uplifting the Black community and realized you didn’t have to be ‘an angry Black man’ to get things done.
The guy was brilliant, suave, debonair and an ultimate strategist. He wasn’t about loud talking and intimidation. He moved methodically and professionally to impact people, things and conditions. People didn’t fear him, they respected him. He encouraged and pushed some young guys like me into the deep waters of life. I think that’s how I ended up on the Y’s board.
Mr. Clement was passionate about a lot of things. The Y was among them. The other day I saw some pictures of him and some other gentlemen whose names and faces I didn’t recognize, but who obviously worked to build the Y into the resource it became. They continued to grow the organization that began under the leadership of Henry W. Thomas in 1866 after the Civil War as the Charleston Negro YMCA to serve African Americans. It’s the oldest continuously operating Y doing that. This year marks its 151st birthday.
During its early years the Y operated out of churches, businesses, meeting halls and private homes. Its proponents were committed and in 1950 the building at 61 Cannon St. was constructed. A testament to its excellence is the remarkable story of the 1955 Little League Baseball team.
In the summer of 1955, all but one of the 61 chartered Little League programs in South Carolina was made up entirely of white players. The lone exception–the Cannon Street
Y.M.C.A. Little League established two years earlier which became the first and only African American Little League in South Carolina sanctioned by Little League Baseball, Incorporated. The league was comprised of four teams sponsored by black businesses and civic organizations and sustained by the support of parents and other local citizens. The four coaches selected an “All-Star” team to represent the league in Charleston’s traditionally “whites only” Little League tournament.
Rather than integrate, city officials canceled the event. Winners by default, the All-Stars prepared to compete in the South Carolina state tournament. In a show of “massive resistance,” white Little League officials, coaches and parents organized a mass boycott.
As a result, the Cannon Street All-Stars became the unofficial state champions. To its credit, Little League Baseball refused white South Carolinians’ request to host a segregated tournament. However, they held firm to a rule prohibiting teams from playing for the World Series title after advancing by forfeit.
Throughout that history the Y has struggled financially, but it has continued to fulfill its objective of developing services primarily for young men, especially African American men and for youth including child services. The Y continues to provide a number of programs that include after school care, a summer day camp and dance classes.
Stoney says that legacy will continue as the Y enters a new phase with the expansion to Berkeley County. A 54,000-square-foot facility will anchor 69 acres where an indoor swimming pool surrounded by multipurpose fields and courts will be located.
The facility will house a 5,000-square-foot library and a venue for performances. The land and its $24 million price tag all come from donations and partnerships.
Stoney says the expansion is an outgrowth of the dreams unimagined by the Y’s founders over 150 years ago. Its mission and viability will be maintained at the Cannon Street location as well, he assures. What began as an effort to provide services to a community forced to segregate itself continues to burst out of those bindings serving communities and populations the founders never dreamed of in areas they never dreamed would be included, he said.