The short-shrift history of the Cannon Street YMCA was as plain as black and white. And, no — a merger with the Christian Family Y wasn’t going to happen.
In the early 1900s, the elite organizers of the historically black youth club had fought among themselves to include darker-skinned black members. During World War II, they fought resistance against a “colored YMCA” to build the facility on Cannon Street, borrowing money from a black insurance company in North Carolina because no local bank would sign a loan. In the 1980s, they struggled to keep from losing the Cannon Street property when a merger with three YMCAs failed.
The Cannon Street facility became a touchstone of pride in African-American communities throughout Charleston.
In the early 2000s, Cannon Street, like the predominantly white Christian Family Y facility on George Street, was in trouble — attendance dropping, losing money and running out of time. Merging the two could mean survival for both. But the Cannon Street heritage was irreplaceable and the opposition to a merger strong.
In stepped Dwayne Green. The attorney had been brought onto the Cannon Street board in 1998, two years after the facility staved off foreclosure. He agreed to serve, knowing the ice was thin and the job might end up being a lost cause. He took the lead to convince community leaders the best preservation of their past was a future.
The YMCA community was “primarily polarized,” said Paul Stoney, the YMCA director. “He just felt it was the right thing to do — together (the two YMCAs) could survive, separately they would go down the tubes. He brought together not only the organizations, but the boards and the cultures. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life.”
Green made the commitment to keep Cannon Street operating even after a new facility was built and led the community effort as well as the fundraising work needed to make that happen.
“There were some hot meetings,” Green recalled with a wry smile. “I think a lot of it was just talking to folks, listening to them, showing them you can maintain your heritage but still reach out to the whole community.”
Raymond Gadsden was one of the people who led opposition to the merger. He had grown up in the Cannon Street Y, remembered his youth when he sometimes waited two days to get in a basketball game in the crowded gym. He didn’t want to lose that.
Gadsden still wants to see a community membership, and the gym opened nights and weekends like it used to be, but “the Y’s doing fine. I’m satisfied. (Green) did all he could do in his capacity,” Gadsden said.
“I care a lot about this community and I realize the Y is one of the few organizations that really serves the inner city community,” Green said. “That’s why I came back to Charleston after law school, to serve that community.”
Source: Post and Courier / Author: Bo Petersen