For years, the heart of the Central Area was an unprepossessing frame building at 23rd Avenue and E Olive Street, home of the East Madison branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Renamed in 1993 in honor of Meredith Mathews, its director from 1957 to 1965, the East Madison Y was not only a community center and a hub for youth programs, but a venue for some of the best-known names in Northwest jazz and rhythm and blues.
A Lot of Activity
"A lot of activity went on in that place," recalled John Gayton (1931-2005), a longtime volunteer and former chairman of the board whose grandfather, John T. Gayton (1868-1954), helped establish the branch in 1936. “When something in the community needed to be addressed, it was talked about at East Madison. There weren’t many other places to meet” (Gayton interview). The branch was also a training ground for civic and business leaders, including some of the most prominent African Americans in Seattle today. “You can hardly think of a black leader here in Seattle who hasn’t been involved with the YMCA,” said Gayton. “Other than maybe what the church may have come up with, there wasn’t much else in the way of leadership training for members of the black community.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, when Seattle was still rigidly divided by the color line, the East Madison Y was also an important part of the African American music scene. The music industry was formally segregated at that time. Separate unions for whites and blacks controlled all the professional gigs. White musicians played in the ballrooms, dance halls, and clubs uptown, whereas black musicians could find little work outside the small after-hours nightclubs along Jackson Street. The Y provided one of the few alternative venues for black performers.
Friday Nights at the Y
Some of the best-known bands in Seattle played at the East Madison Y’s now-legendary Friday night dances, including groups led by Dave Lewis (a bandleader who influenced a generation of musicians in the Northwest); Floyd Standifer (a trumpeter who began hanging out at the East Madison Y after his family moved to Seattle in 1946), and Oscar Holden Sr. (a gifted pianist and patriarch of the Seattle jazz scene; five of his seven children had successful careers in music).
There were many others, including some who went on to find international fame. Jazz trumpeter (and later an arranger and movie producer) Quincy Jones, whose family moved to Seattle in the mid-1940s, began playing gigs at the East Madison Y when he was still a teenager. He sometimes sat in with singer/pianist Ray Charles, who moved to Seattle in 1948 when he was 17, picking the city because it was as far as he could get from his native Florida and still stay within the continental United States. Another regular was Ernestine Anderson, a bobby soxer at Garfield High School with a voice and a sense of swing that would make her famous. “Sometimes we’d have Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, and Ernestine Anderson in the same set,” said Gayton. “When you hear names like those, and you know how important they’ve been to music -- well, those were the people who played when we had dances.”
The roots of the East Madison Y lay in the demographic changes in Seattle after World War I. The prospect of jobs and greater opportunities, coupled with continuing repression in the South, drew an increasing number of southern blacks to the Northwest. Among the newcomers was Oscar Holden Sr., who was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved to Seattle in order to get as far from the South as possible (something Ray Charles would do later). Like other new arrivals, Holden and his family settled in the neighborhood now known as the Central Area.
Part of the area, including the site of the East Madison YMCA today, had been largely black since the 1890s, but the rest was predominately Jewish until about 1918, when the racial makeup shifted. White families began to move to other neighborhoods. Meanwhile, restrictive real estate covenants and other forms of housing discrimination gave the city’s African American residents limited options outside of the Central Area. Black owned and operated businesses flourished but there were few social services other than those provided by the churches. Representatives of the community were particularly concerned about the lack of programs for youth. In the late 1920s, they asked the Seattle YMCA to fill this void by opening a branch in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, an even larger community of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino families had developed in an adjacent neighborhood, known today as the International District. This community, too, sought services from the Seattle YMCA. “We have in our midst a large group of Orientals -- Japanese, Chinese and Philippinos -- who urgently need the facilities provided by the Y.M.C.A.,” the organization concluded in 1927. “Owing to racial characteristics, it is impossible to serve this group adequately through any other than an International Branch building, located in that section of the city where these people congregate” (The Forward Movement ...).
"Asiatics or Colored People"
The YMCA launched a capital campaign in 1928 that included, as one of its goals, the construction of a building “for Asiatics or for Colored people. Either (not both).” As a campaign brochure explained, “Both these groups urgently need a type of Y.M.C.A. service which only a building adapted to their requirements can provide. Only one can be served with the funds sought” (Making Men for Seattle). The board of directors had not yet decided which community would prevail when the stock market collapsed in October 1929. Plans for any new branches fell victim, at least temporarily, to the Great Depression.
The YMCA did not establish a presence in the black community until 1936, when it opened a provisional branch in the small frame building at 23rd and E Olive. The building -- donated by the Colman family, longtime benefactors of the Seattle Y -- had originally been used as a tennis club. It would serve as the home of the East Madison Y for nearly 30 years.
The branch operated on an entirely volunteer basis, with some financial support from Kenneth Colman but no funding from the Seattle YMCA, until 1942. By that time, World War II had rearranged the city’s demographic profile. About 7,000 Japanese residents had been forced to leave Seattle, while a roughly equal number of African Americans had moved to the city, drawn either by the promise of work in defense industries or assigned to military duty in the region. Census figures showed that Seattle’s black population tripled within 10 years, growing from 3,789 in 1940 to 15,667 by 1950.
During the war, the East Madison branch became, in effect, an Armed Services YMCA for black servicemen. The War Commission and the City Council provided funds to remodel the old tennis club and add a Quonset hut to the site. The hut served as a canteen and dormitory for the Colman Servicemen’s Club. In 1942, the Seattle YMCA budgeted $8,000 to hire an executive director and otherwise support the branch, increasing that amount to $13,000 the next year. In 1943, an average of 400 to 600 servicemen used the branch’s facilities each week. By the end of the year, a total of 3,000 had slept in the dormitory. “The war time needs of this city fell heavily on the shoulders of the East Madison Branch,” the Seattle YMCA reported in 1944. “For nowhere in Seattle was there an institution better equipped to meet the problems of the negro civilian and service man” (The Y in Seattle, February 1944).
Although initially focused on the needs of black servicemen, the East Madison branch also served other racial groups, particularly through its youth programs. Its summer day camps (sponsored in cooperation with the Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association and opened to both boys and girls), Gra-Y clubs for grade school boys, Tri-Y for high school boys, and Phalanx clubs for young men just out of high school were all interracial. “We believe that if the youngsters live on the same street, attend the same school, steal apples together, etc., they can also belong to the same YMCA Club and take part in the constructive program that the YMCA can offer,” John Copeland, the first executive director of the branch, wrote in 1946 (The Y in Seattle, November 1946).
The budget was cut back and the staff reduced in the years after the war but the East Madison branch continued to play an important role in the community throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. According to one account, 28 separate groups used its facilities in 1952. More than 9,000 people participated in crafts programs, athletic leagues, social events, camps, and club activities sponsored by the branch that year. Only the Central branch downtown had a greater number of adults committed to volunteer service.
Even so, the East Madison branch lagged far behind the other six neighborhood branches of the Seattle YMCA in terms of financial support from either local sources or the metropolitan board. “East Madison was definitely a step child,” according to Charles V. Johnson, a retired King County Superior Court judge and the first African-American chairman of the metropolitan board (Johnson interview).
Renaissance at East Madison
Johnson had moved to Seattle from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1954 to attend law school at the University of Washington. He was recruited to serve on East Madison’s board of management by Meredith Mathews (1919-1992), who had become the executive director in 1957. Johnson said that when he saw the building for the first time, in 1958, it reminded him of the "colored branch" of the YMCA that he had known as a child growing up in Little Rock -- so much so that he wondered if the Y had some sort of franchise on buildings like that: "There wasn’t much difference as far as the facility was concerned. They were almost alike. It was just an old building that was long, with a small office in there and a ping-pong table and that was about it. Certainly it was the worst facility the Y had here as far as the physical plant was concerned and it stayed that way until we built the new building."
The new building was completed in 1965, at the end of Meredith Mathews’ eight-year tenure as branch director (he left shortly after the dedication in April 1965 to become associate executive of the Pacific Northwest Area Council of YMCAs; in 1971 he was named regional executive of the YMCA's Pacific Region). A pool and dressing room were added in 1968, giving the East Madison Y all the amenities of a full-status YMCA branch.
Mathews was a charismatic leader who ushered in what John Gayton called "a Renaissance period," when “we had some of the best programs and some of the highest numbers of volunteers we’d ever had up until about now.” Some of his successors were less successful. Membership declined and operating deficits increased throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The annual deficit soared from $1,000 on a budget of $88,000 in 1975 to $30,000 on a budget of $270,000 in 1981. Membership dropped to about 1,200 in 1981, down from a peak of 1,600 in 1949.
The recessionary economic climate of the times contributed to the branch’s problems, but Johnson and Gayton pointed to other factors as well, including weaknesses in the leadership at the branch. “When a branch has problems, most often it revolves around how well the executive director of that branch is able to motivate the community, get volunteers involved, raise funds, increase membership,” said Johnson. “If you don’t have that, then you’re going to have financial problems.”
Challenge and Renewal
Additionally, the civil rights movement had attracted some of the energy and leadership from volunteers that once helped support the East Madison branch. Meanwhile, the Central Area was undergoing another demographic shift. More white families began moving in, drawn by the affordable housing and proximity to downtown, in a process often called “gentrification.” The East Madison Y experienced some loss of viability as a result. “The community was changing from one that was African American-based to one with more of a mix,” Gayton said. “Some of the people who had been there for generations moved out. We weren’t really getting the support of the community, particularly the African American community, which had been the main supporters of that Y throughout its history.”
The board of directors of what had by then become the YMCA of Greater Seattle considered closing the branch several times during the early 1980s. The board put the branch on provisional status in 1982 and fired its executive director the next year. Rumors that the branch would be closed persisted for several years after that.
However, by 1990 the branch had regained some of its lost luster. New programs were implemented, including Black Achievers, which links adult mentors with middle and high school students. The YMCA of Greater Seattle demonstrated renewed commitment to the branch by including it as a priority in a 1991 capital campaign. After a five-month, $1.5 million renovation, the branch, now named the Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA, reopened in September 1994 with a new gymnasium, a state-of-the-art computer learning center, and a fitness center that Gayton proudly described as "second to none."
“In the last 10 years or so, we’ve done a very good job of making sure that we are important to the community,” Gayton said. “We fell a little bit behind but we got back on track. We seem to have the right formula now.”
And those Friday night dances, featuring some of the brightest talents from the Seattle music scene? “We don’t have dances there anymore, but we’ve been trying to bring them back,” Gayton said in 2001.