The Y. M. C. A. Controversy

February 13, 2013 Posted by: Karl Gurcke, Historian of Klondike Gold Rush NHP

Discrimination can be an ugly subject but we all do it - discriminate.  I for one never liked Brussels sprouts even though (or perhaps because) I was born and grew up in Brussels sprout country in California's Central Coast and my mother cooked the vegetable often.  So I've discriminated against Brussels sprouts (that is I've not bought them or eaten them) for most of my life. 


Discrimination against people is another matter.  My father was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1909.  Approximately thirty years later he was living in San Jose, Costa Rica with my mother (born in San Jose, California) and my two little sisters.  When World War II broke out, he was put under house arrest by the Costa Rican authorities and later put in prison - no judge, no jury, and no trial.  He wasn't even charge with a crime although I suppose you could say his crime was that he had been born in the wrong country at the wrong time.  In January 1943, he, along with my mother and two little sisters were shipped up to San Pedro, California on the US Army transport Puebla and then shipped to a "family internment camp" near Crystal City, Texas, where they were kept in prison for over a year simply because of my father's place of birth.  He and the rest of my family were finally released in May 1944.  My father case wasn't the only one.  During that war many Germans, Italians, and Japanese civilians living in Central and South America were shipped to the US for internment for the duration of the war as were many Japanese-Americans.  Most of these people were completely innocent and in fact were never charged with a crime, just locked up because of where they were born.


So why do I begin my talk for Black History Month with a brief synopsis of my father's life during the World War II, my father who was a white man?  The reason is because discrimination ironically knows no color boundary.  People of all different colors hate people of all different colors and color is unfortunately not the only reason we seem to hate each other.  The only way we will ever get over this culture of hate is by understanding others and our history.


On August 16, 1900, Skagway's main newspaper, the Daily Alaskan, ran a long article about the controversy brewing around Skagway's recently established Young Men's Christian Association, Alaska's first YMCA.  I've mentioned this controversy in a couple of earlier History Talks but on this Black History Month, I thought I'd read most of that article to illustrate what people in  Skagway were thinking about discrimination one hundred and thirteen years ago and how they were reacting to it.  The headlines stated the problem [quote]:


Line Drawn


Objections Arise to Colored Men in Y.M.C.A.


Withdrawals Made


Some of the Members of the Association Displeased With the Fact Sons of Ham Are Permitted in the Organization


[The article begins]:  The hitherto serene career of the Y.M.C.A. has been ruffled to some extent the last few days.  The membership has been rolling up during the summer at a lively pace.  Over three hundred members were obtained by the first of this month.  The limit permitted under the rules of the organization had been reached, and the management was congratulating itself on a full house, and some had even begun to wonder what would be done with future applications, but they were relieved of further worry on that score.  It resulted from exceptions taken by certain of the members to association with other members of the organization. 


The enrollment was just about filled a few days ago by the enlistment of thirty soldiers from Co. L, Twenty-fourth United States regulars, who are stationed in Skagway.  The soldiers are all of the colored race.  It was the objection to the membership of colored people to the organization that caused the ruffled waters.  Certain of the members were not pleased to have the colored men mingle with them in the athletic, social, and other diversions afforded in the association buildings.  Objection was also entertained against using the same baths with the colored men. 


At the last meeting of the women's gymnastic class, last week, according to one of the women who withdrew, only two women were present, one a married woman and the other single.  Up to that time, she stated yesterday, as many as 30 had attended.  Mr. Reid says, however, that 21 women were present at the last class meeting.


The withdrawals caused comment in all directions.  The fact the membership of the club was so large meant that in nearly every quarter of the city people were more or less interested. 


Shopmen, miners, professional men, old folks and young were all more or less attracted by the affair, and had occasion to say or do something, and the matter on the whole became one of the most discussed of any regarding social affairs that has come up in the town of late.


Those who have withdrawn are quite decided as to their grounds being justifiable.  Secretary Reid is quite firm in the stand that colored men are, according to the constitution of the order, entitled to remain in the organization. 


The colored members themselves seem to take different views on the matter.  Several of them were asked yesterday what they knew about the affair.  All said they had heard nothing up to that time of any of the whites having withdrawn, and knew of none of the soldiers having drawn out or expressed an intention or desire to do so.  One of the colored men stated he would keep his membership and intended to stay in regardless of what were the likes or dislikes of the white members.  Three other soldiers took another view of the matter.  They wanted to withdraw.  One appeared at the secretary's office last evening to ask for withdrawal of his name.  He stated he was not going to remain where he was not wanted, and where someone might take objection to his presence and insult him.  He thought there were other places he could find suitable society.  It was stated by him that the soldiers of his company have a certificate as to the best conduct of any company in the regiment. 


A number of the colored members were secured the last week or two ago by a principal to a membership contest.  Perhaps 15 had joined before that time, and a similar number were brought in later by one of the contestants. 


One of the women who withdrew, and is the wife of a prominent Skagwayan, stated yesterday:


"I withdrew because I do not like to associate with colored people.  I believe the Y.M.C.A. is a good institution and does good, and my husband has always maintained the same opinion.  He has helped the association and I have done as much for it as I could.  I am willing to continue to help the association, and have considered, since my withdrawal, the proposition of getting up a benefit entertainment elsewhere for the association.  Yet, I do not dare to go where I must meet colored men.  I have southern blood, it is true, but I have the greatest respect for a colored person in his proper place.  I regret the mistake in the present case has occurred because of some, but it cannot be helped."


"I was in the gymnasium a few days ago when one of the colored men saw me trying to punch a bag.  He came up and volunteered to give me lessons.  Now I do not like such a proceeding.  On another occasion one of the colored men took part in a basketball team with the white men.  I do not think that proper."


Secretary Reid last evening, when asked about the matter, said,


"The Young Men's Christian Association knows no color line.  It stands for young men regardless of nationality the world over.  The only clause in our constitution regarding who shall be eligible to associate membership is that of good moral character.  The same constitution applies the world over.  In the South where the race prejudice is strong and the large numbers of colored people warrant conducting of a distinct work along the same line, they have separate institutions.  Where this is not the case they are treated like anyone else as long as they conduct themselves in a proper manner." 


"As for Skagway, there can be no exception, we shall treat all alike.  The arrangement of the classes provides two evenings, Tuesday and Friday for the soldiers for class work and recreation.  In a like manner, classes are provided for all, setting apart Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings for general class work for those whom classes are not otherwise provided, so that there is no occasion for feeling on the part of anyone.  During the hours set apart for the ladies on Monday and Thursday afternoons from 2 to 6 o'clock, the ladies have the exclusive use of both gymnasium and baths, during which time there is a lady attendant in charge.  Everything that can possibly be done for the pleasure and best interests of its members, the association stands ready to do, to…show discrimination in color it cannot-Christianity knows no such discrimination."


"It is unfortunate that such a feeling should exist, but inasmuch as it does, nothing remains to be done but to permit those who entertain this feeling to withdraw."


"So far only seven have withdrawn their membership cards."


"The question was first brought by one of the colored boys asking 'Is there anything to prevent me becoming a member?'"


However, after all [is] done and said, it appears there is no particular blame to attach to any of the parties concerned.  The constitution of the Y.M.C.A. does not prohibit the colored men becoming members of the organization and it does not require that anyone should remain in the organization if not pleased with other members.  Those who wish to solicit members are permitted to solicit from any walk of life they choose, so long as their moral character is good.  The fellowship is not binding, so those withdrawing follow their own pleasure, those remaining in do the same, those who think the situation is good enough are pleased and those who are not satisfied have recourse in following others that have resigned, so there are avenues open to all, and everything is lovely and the goose hangs high."  [So ends the article]


There were soon hints that some people were looking for alternatives to the YMCA.  Within days of the controversy breaking, a number of Skagway's "best known women" got together and initiated a new social organization, called the Magpie Club.  While directed by women, the organization allowed men to join and participate in social functions, such as dances.  The club first met in Anderson's Hall, but was soon using the new Elks' Hall.  Interestingly, the club immediately ordered basketball equipment and members soon began playing basketball games and becoming involved in gymnastics and calisthenics.  The club rapidly gained members, with 250 reported by October.  Participation in events was limited to local members and invited guests from out of town.


By late August 1900, a Railroad Men's Athletic and Gymnastics Club had been proposed, with the approval of White Pass & Yukon Route railway Superintendent J. P. Rogers.  Within a month, the Railroad Men's Club had gotten use of a rent-free hall.  The newspaper reported that the [quote]: "…boys are planning to put in a complete athletic outfit…in addition to the trapezes, horizontal bars, boxing, and fencing materials and so on, there is to be a billiard table, bowling alley, baths, smoking room, and library." [end quote]  These facilities were to be open to railroad workers.


About 8 months after the controversy broke, in April 1901, the Daily Alaskan, under the headline, "YMCA Prospering," reported on improvements to the YMCA building.  In a later letter to the Daily Alaskan, Secretary Reid observed that the improvements were made by businessmen, that is they were donations and not out of general funds.  The letter goes on, [quote]: "The directors have curtailed the expenses of the association in every possible way to pay off the deficit incurred last winter, and are not favorably disposed to incur any additional expenses until the debt is entirely wiped out." [end quote]


The local YMCA could not get out of debt, however, and by late October of 1901, it had closed its doors, due to the lack of sufficient funds [quote]: "to meet the current expenses and the salary of the assistant in charge of the rooms." [end quote]  The YMCA boasted over 1,000 members, almost a third of the town's population in 1900 but by August 1, 1901 membership was down to 100 and had dropped to just 55 by the time of the closing. 


Why did the YMCA close its doors after such a promising start a few years earlier?  The dramatic downward trend in Skagway's economy immediately after the Klondike Gold Rush certainly played a part.  The town's population went from approximately 10,000 in 1898, to just over 3,000 in 1900 and to around 870 in 1910 so the YMCA was probably doomed even if this racist incident hadn't occurred.  But it did and that probably hastened the demise of the organization here in Skagway.  


As far as my father was concerned, in spite of the treatment he received at the hands of the United States government, he became a naturalized citizen on April 21, 1952.  In regard to my dislike of Brussels sprouts, years later I tried the vegetable at some restaurant and found out that it wasn't as bad as I remembered which goes to show you that old dogs can learn new tricks and vegetables can be cooked in different ways and the evils of discrimination can be conquered. 


This program was researched, written and by edited by myself.  Information for this program was supplied in large part by a long article in the Daily Alaskan of August 16, 1900 (page 1, column 2), by various other issues of the Daily Alaskan and Skagway News newspapers from 1898 to 1901, by a History Talk program researched and written by David Simpson that I read last year about this time, and by my sister, Heidi Donald's book on my parent's internment during World War II entitled:  We Were Not the Enemy (with a 2008 publication date).


1 Comments Comments icon

  1. August 15, 2013 at 03:58

    I like the broader focus on discrimination, even against Brussels sprouts!

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