By ERIN ROLL
For many years in Montclair, there was a place on Washington Street that was very special to Montclair’s children and young adults, especially children and young adults of color.
The Washington Street YMCA, often known as the Colored Y, once hoccupied the spot that is now home to the Charles H. Bullock School.
Now, some of the people who went to the Y as children and young adults want to help the rest of Montclair remember the Y’s importance in the community.
The Washington Street Y Memorial Committee went before the board of education earlier this fall to ask for permission to set up a memorial outside Charles H. Bullock.
Elvoid Christmas is the head of the committee organizing the memorial project. His older brother, Everett, had worked as one of the Y’s administrators starting in the 1960s.
“This was more than a building – it was a home to us,” he said.
The family lived in the rear of 39 Washington St., which meant that they lived directly behind the Y. “Which was a blessing for me,” Elvoid said, though he didn’t realize it until later.
The committee had been appealing to the township for at least the past few years for a memorial. “We were on the right train, but the wrong track,” Elvoid remembers, before the township directed them to speak to the board of education.
The goal is to get a monument put up before the end of the school year.
The people who attended the Washington Street YMCA as children are now in their seventies and eighties, and that generation is gradually dying off.
“We’re all senior citizens,” Elvoid said. “We want to get this monument in place so we can touch it and smell it while we’re still alive.”
The main Y on Park Street was not a place where African-American children were made to feel welcome, Everett said, and that persisted until approximately the 1970s. “We could go, but we always knew we weren’t welcome,” Everett said.
Elvoid recalls that the Washington Street Y was where many children learned how to swim. The Y was also a place where people could pay five cents to take a shower, in an era when a lot of homes in Montclair did not yet have showers.
Everett began working as an administrator at the Washington Street Y in 1960. And from the beginning, he found himself working with the children of his friends. “And they trusted me very much,” he remembers.
Everett later went on to work with the national YMCA organization, retiring in 1996.
The Y offered a lot more than swimming lessons: it was a place where children from the community learned how to eventually take their place in civic life.
“You were respected. And you were expected to give respect,” Elvoid said. This included taking hats off before entering the building, holding the door for adults and not using profanity.
The building was demolished in 2005 to make way for the Charles H. Bullock School.
“How can we forget? Everett came up here just to get a brick from the demolished building,” Elvoid said.
Everett still has that brick to this day. And both of them remember people, many of them with tears in their eyes, coming to the demolition site to save a brick as well.
The committee will continue working with the BOE and raising money to help bring the memorial about.
“It’s just a witness to the kind of men, the kind of women that we had in leadership positions,” Everett said, and a tribute to the work that they did in helping to prepare boys and girls for civic life as adults.
Donations for the memorial may be sent to WSY Memorial Committee, c/o Elvoid Christmas, P.O. Box 481, Montclair, NJ 07042-0481.