Central Library celebrates the legacy of the Michigan Avenue YMCA

Feb 3, 2020

The Underground Railroad, the Nash House and the Colored Musicians Club are often mentioned as sigficiant Black history sites in Western New York. But a now-empty lot on Michigan Avenue also holds historical significance.

For 50 years, 585 Michigan Avenue was home to a YMCA that catered to African Americans who were not allowed at other Y’s. This week, the Buffalo African American Museum Committee is presenting its Michigan Avenue YMCA display at the Central Library as part of Black History Month.

Committee Chairman Clifford Bell was a regular at Michigan Avenue.

“That was the meeting place,” he said. “Because there was no one place in Buffalo at that time where any great number of people could meet. So the YMCA became a meeting place and its history is just magnificent [regarding] the things that it did for young Black people growing up.”

Bell said it was there where he learned about more than just playing sports.

“I started there at an early age,” he said. “Eight or 10 years old. I’m 90 years old now so I’m familiar with the history. We went there because it was a place to go get information, education and have sports at the same time.”

Built in 1927 by Black architect John Brent, 585 Michigan was frequented by many significant figures in Black history.

“We had Dr. W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington,” Bell said. “All were members, or came in. Even when he was in his heyday, a football player for the Cleveland Browns, Jim Brown.”

Even with an esteemed Black membership, Bell said the Y was rooted in its adherence to dignity.

“The demands were merely because discipline was a very important feature at the YMCA,” he said. “They welcomed you there, but they welcomed you there if you abided by the rules and regulations that dealt with character building and responsibility.”

The Central Library will be featuring other Black History exhibits throughout the month.