You won’t believe what went on at Downtown YMCA

YMCA Downtown
Current Downtown YMCA Branch

By David Sher

The downtown YMCA building is up for sale.

I am likely the longest continuous member of the Birmingham YMCA–if not, I’m close.

I started going to the Y in the summers while in high school and continued through college.

My memories are from the late ‘50’s on.

Birmingham was a lot different back then.

There were no women or Black members.

There was a separate branch for Blacks—I believe called the 8th Avenue Y.

There was a YWCA for women, but in those days I didn’t know much about it.

According to BhamWiki, “The YMCA built a building at 526 20th Street North in 1909. In 1926 the organization purchased the former Birmingham Athletic Club building across the street at 505 20th Street from the Robert E. Lee Klan for $200,000.”

The Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 was the first Alabama-based chapter of the “second” Ku Klux Klan.

When I joined the YMCA, the upper floors were designated as temporary housing for men. When members walked through the lobby on their way to exercise, they passed through a variety of men, young and old, who lived upstairs.

The YMCA had two classes of memberships.

There were the everyday members who had a basic locker room with open showers alongside the swimming pool. The fact that the showers were open was not of an issue since many men and boys swam in the pool without bathing suits.

Then there was the ‘Business Men’s Club.’ Members enjoyed an upscale carpeted locker room with a sauna and steam room. Business Club members were primarily professionals (many attorneys), business owners, and executives who used their YMCA membership to great advantage to make new contacts, build relationships, and often did business with one another.

The YMCA offered ‘rub down’ (massage) services for its members. Members could buy massage tickets for as little as $5.00 for a 45 minute massage. Men received their massages in an open room from masseurs (that is what they were called) who were primarily blind and Black men. Some of the masseurs graduated from the Kansas City School of Massage–this must have seemed the perfect occupation for blind men.

In later years, two massage therapists remained. Marvin Jackson, a blind Black man, and Neal Norris, a blind white man. Norris outlasted Jackson and worked at the YMCA for many years. I remember attending his 25th work anniversary. Sam Tenenbaum, an opera singer who also wrestled under the name of The Great Kaiser and who was a member of the YMCA, serenaded the attendees with Edelweiss from the Sound of Music. Amos Hudson, who coincidentally was my music teacher at Crestline Elementary school and was also a YMCA member, accompanied Sam on the piano.

Many super aggressive basketball games were held in the gym with players occasionally sustaining injuries, but the real action at the Y was on the roof. Handball was a popular YMCA sport with players primarily wearing only a jock strap. While the handball payers competed in the hot sun, men napped and sunbathed au naturel on the roof. The nude sunbathing came to an abrupt end, however, when the tall buildings were built nearby and women in the upper floors complained.

In 1985, the old YMCA building was demolished and the AmSouth-Harbert center was built in its place.

The new YMCA building at 4th Avenue North, where it is today, could accommodate women, so women were invited to join. This upset a number of men who resigned in protest.

Today I primarily exercise at the Shades Valley YMCA in Homewood.

The YMCA of today looks nothing like the YMCA of my youth. Women, men, young and old, and every other ethnicity exercise and build friendships.

The letters of the YMCA originally stood for the Young Men’s Christian Association. The membership now is not necessarily Young, Men, or Christian–just an Association that has adapted to life in a modern world.

When people tell me Birmingham hasn’t changed, I ask them to look at the history of our YMCA.

The old YMCA was a microcosm of Birmingham then; today’s YMCA is a microcosm of Birmingham now.

Editor’s note:  My old YMCA buddies, please feel free to comment, to correct, or fill in the blanks in this story. It would be good to hear from you.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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28 thoughts on “You won’t believe what went on at Downtown YMCA”

  1. Thank you David for this trip down memory lane.

    I really appreciate your concluding parallel analysis of BHM and the Y!

  2. Very fine piece Mr. Sher! I believe the Y has been looking for land for some time. Others can probably comment more knowledgeably than I on the changing demographics of the downtown workforce in recent times and the fitness club scene.

  3. “The fact that the showers were open was not of an issue since many men and boys swam in the pool without bathing suits.”

    I’m 74 and have always wondered, why that was – in relation to what we know now about childhood/youth sports and adult pedophiles and abusers. I still have not read a scholarly study on mid-century WMCA practices.

  4. Me an my brother learned to swim at the Y it was around 66,67 as African American kids I don’t remember any racial problems or to young to notice but I never forgot till this day how they taught me to swim an since I’ve taught my son an Grandkids with the exact same method 55yrs later!!

  5. I remember that Marvin Jackson, a blind, black masseur there, had six fingers on each hand. I worked downtown starting in 1977, and it was a downtown business thing to be a member.

    1. Hello. I’m Shaneka Jackson and Marvin Jackson was my Grandfather. He also had six toes on each foot as well. He could massage a headache away.

    2. Hello. I’m Shaneka Jackson and Marvin Jackson was my Grandfather. He passed away in 2004. He could massage a headache away.

  6. Do you happen to know a man named Ed Johnson? He played handball with Danny Kallman and some others in the 60s and played on the roof of the old Y. He is my dad.

      1. It’s certainly funny how times change. Years from now we will look back and call these the good ole days! I came to the downtown Y branch post-pandemic and was shocked that the pool wasn’t overflowing with swimmers. I love the environment and people there. I believe everyone should swim. Virtually anyone can learn regardless of age or health status. It’s so good for you- body, mind and soul! Maybe one day our community and society will recognize its inherent value and every child will learn swimming and water safety as a matter of course. That would provide unlimited health benefits, prevent drowning and dispel the fear of the unknown to bridge the generational and socioeconomic gaps holding back a tremendous community of marginalized potential swimmers. Much appreciation to you for this article!

    1. Gary Rasbury here. I played many a game against Dann Kallman and Ed Johnson. Jabo Waggoner and I won the doubles in 1968 and we had to beat Danny and Ray Large. Then after that my pa rtner was Bill Gaulden, a great athlete. We won the doubles tournament every year we entered it until 1986 when because of my business I quit the Y. I went almost every week day from 1965 to 1986. At the old Y we had to walk up 11 stories the last few years because the elevator didn’t work. I would not take anything for all the friends I et there and the good times we had. My last singles tournament in 1985 or 1986 I beat Warren Lightfoot for the Championship. It was 98 degrees in the shade and about 130 on the cement floor. I almost had a heat stroke. I couldn’t leave the Y for 2 hours. I told Warren I was going to sue him because he wouldn’t postpone it. ha. We call Warren lighten because he was so fast. Thank all you guys for sharing the info. Gary Rasbury

      1. Thanks David and Gary for commenting. I was born in 74 so I remember a few years as a kid going down there. Ed passed away in 2019 two days before his 95th birthday. Much respect for the handball players of that generation. Y’all are just a different kind of tough!

  7. Great article. A trip down memory lane for sure. You forgot to mention Neal’s taking bets on football games. Had a wad of cash in his pocket. You had to pay off in cash also.
    The little snack bar on second floor was great for breakfast and lunch. There were many times I would work out 7 day’s a week.

  8. Nice article that brought back lots of fond memories.
    By the way, used to play basketball during my lunch hour with a host of other businessmen that were high school and some college players.
    Basketball was a rough game at the Y and you knew that going in.
    Most of us called it basket brawl.
    Thanks David

  9. There was also a YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) on the NW corner of 18th Street and Sixth Avenue North. The structure still stands.

  10. Great article. Good memories.

    I remember going there with my dad, Ed Johnson, in the early 80’s as a young teenager. We ran the stairs to the roof 2-3 times each Saturday, around all of the abandoned rooms. We went all the way to the top, even on cold windy days. It was daunting going up the rickety black steel stairs to the top. He would go play handball and my brother and I (9-14 years old) would run around unsupervised. Try that today at any fitness center!!!

    I played basketball with the men, and they would rough me up just because I was a kid. I learned to play physical, picked up a few tricks, and how to hold my on on the court. I don’t remember what I did, but one adult punched me. It didn’t hurt too much, and they separated us eventually when I started to draw back, and he was taking another swing.

    The raquetball /handball courts were uniquely stacked on top of each other.

    The pool did seem a little odd (and unique), but the open showers were typical for the day. Most of the guys who built and used the Y had been in the military from 40’s to 70’s (as most of the men of those generations were).

    There were also a handful of celebrities who showed up for handball or workouts – Joe Paterno, Ara Parsigian, Arnold Schwarzeneggar to name a few

  11. My dad, Ed Johnson, was always recruited to play handball with Joe Paterno. Even though daddy was a big time Alabama fan, he had great respect for Coach Paterno which bled over into liking Penn State. He also played with Coach Parseighan at least once. And if you knew my daddy, you know he was a “roofer” as well.
    Mr. Sher thanks for this great tribute to an important institution in our disappearing downtown.

  12. Nice story, David, wonderful reminiscing! I am now 90, but was in my forties +/- when Jack Tanner (Executive Director) pushed me into taking small roles on one of his many committees at the old Downtown “Y”….he kept pushing and before I knew it, he had me in line to become the next PRESIDENT…well, I was just a young real estate agent hitting the pavement every day…and did not feel qualified for that job.. particularly since the plans called for construction of a MILLION DOLLAR STATE OF THE ART DOWNTOWN YMCA….and, here comes Jerry Leader , Jewish and from the Southside of town, to lead this prominent Christian organization during this huge transition! I WAS OVERWHELMED…but Jack Tanner, again, prevailed … I tried to beg out but Jack said “we know what we’re doing “.
    With the contributions and hard work of so many, that new YMCA was built. Many lifelong friends shared its success and I was blessed to have served in a small way.

  13. Wonderful memories. It’s funny how we tend to focus on the present as if it has always been this way. This is a fine reminder of just how much has changed over the years. What is true of the YMCA is also true in so many other respects in our City.

  14. I read this again today. I so miss the downtown Y. I got in the habit of going to the downtown Y when I retired and used the Silver Sneakers program. I came downtown because of the great people running things and the very nice people I met while being there. Loved the upstairs track too. After 2 years of Covid I tried to go back but the hours were cut back- mornings the Y was closed. So now my reason for going downtown is gone – very sad. I have great memories of working in Birmingham in the 70’s- 80’s.

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