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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Black History Month Was Born At The Old Wabash YMCA. A New Virtual Tour Lets You Stroll Through It

Living Landmark tells the story of the former Wabash YMCA at 3757 S. Wabash Ave. in Bronzeville.

A virtual tour of the former Wabash YMCA is available all month long in celebration of Black History Month.
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BRONZEVILLE — A new virtual tour aims to give viewers a closer look at a historic local institution responsible for improving the lives of Black Chicagoans — and launching Black History Month.

The Renaissance Collaborative, a Bronzeville-based social impact organization, is offering free virtual tours throughout February of the storied Wabash YMCA as part of its Living Landmark Friendraiser.

When the Wabash YMCA, 3757 S. Wabash Ave., opened in 1911, it was the only Y in the city that admitted Black residents. Racist policies denied them access to other Ys.

Fifteen years later, it would serve as the historic backdrop for Carter G. Woodson’s launch of Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in the 1970s. It is also where the historian launched the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915.

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

“When we had our virtual gala last fall, we found that it was hard to get people to attend a virtual event all at the same time. We were trying to think of something we could do that people could do on their own time, something that was a little more interactive than just watching a video,” said Tara Balcerzak, The Renaissance Collaborative’s communications and resource manager.

Using Google Street View, the tour tells the story of the building and the hundreds of people who walked through its doors with archived newspaper articles, images, and documents. Viewers can “walk” up a stairwell to explore the facility, clicking on places of interest to view them.

A Facebook Live discussion with Lionel Kimble, a professor at Chicago State University, caps off the month-long event Feb. 28. The history expert will talk about the significance of the Wabash Y while reflecting on the social movements of the past and present.

An important takeaway is the idea that there aren’t too many places like the Wabash Y where people can gather, and all these social and cultural changes can happen, Balcerzak said. The Y was where the vast and varied lives of Black Chicagoans intersected, from the academics who’d meet to plan membership fundraisers on behalf of neighborhood kids, to the young men who regularly availed themselves of the facility’s ping pong table.

Balcerzak hopes to use the virtual tour as a launch pad for a live tour once they’re allowed to open to the public.

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