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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