The Colored YMCA

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Gordon Roberts and Walter Preston were both born in Orange. Mr. Roberts in the 1920s and Mr. Preston in the 1940s. They both had successful careers working with programs to support young people in Orange, Newark and other places. One of the common foundations they cite from their upbringing is the Oakwood Avenue “Colored” YMCA. The Oakwood YMCA and YWCA were both demolished by the construction of Interstate-280. Preston, Roberts, and many others from the historic African American community are very clear in their opinion that losing the Ys was among the most devastating impacts of I-280.

When discussing the YMCA, Walter Preston said, “280 destroyed our community. Point blank … it destroyed us as a people here.” The Oakwood YMCA and YWCA were the places to go. They had an adult section that the kids would dream to visit one day, there was a pool at the Y where for half the week the men could swim and the other half the women could swim. Preston explained “all the blacks were taught/made to swim, that was our thing, and you got to swim … It was a rite of passage.” Roberts remembers the recreation rooms, playing basketball and touch football. Mrs. Goldie Burbage would go to the YWCA for etiquette, singing, and dance classes. She also told a story of her group, “The Rebels” who wore red caps, plaid skirts, and red shoes, “we rebelled against everything our parents were involved in,” including the Ys.

Losing the Ys was especially damaging because, according to Preston, “all of [the] leadership people came through that Y. All professional people, all the Doctors and Dentists were there.” At the YMCA young African Americans saw men dressed in ties and could see what successful people looked like and could learn from them. Roberts credits the relationships he built at the YMCA with his ability to attend Howard University on a scholarship provided by one of the community’s leading families. Losing the YMCA and YWCA meant losing access to community leaders since these adults left the community after 280 came through.

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