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The Y in Druid Hill turns 100: A century of swim lessons for West Baltimore

The historic YMCA in Druid Hill, which was the only pool for African Americans during segregation and is where Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway learned to swim, turns 100. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Back in segregated Baltimore, there was only one indoor pool where African-American children could swim: The Y in Druid Hill.

There were "fabulous pools up in Clifton" said Bradley Alston, a longtime member at Druid Hill. But they weren't for "black kids in the '40s and '50s."

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The pool in the state's oldest YMCA building was. Tens of thousands of children have learned to swim there in the past century. And on Saturday, families will celebrate the Upton center's 100th anniversary with an unveiling of displays dedicated to its history. There's also a community party, and everyone is invited.

Before Cab Calloway was singing "Hi-De-Ho," the jazz showman learned to swim at Druid Hill. So did legendary coach Leonard "Duck" Gibson, namesake of the Frederick Douglass High School Ducks. And before Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court, he swam at The Y in Druid Hill.

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"That's part of being an American kid," Alston said.

The tradition continues. On Wednesday, Bianca Jones watched her son and daughter cling to the edge of the YMCA pool. Her children kicked with wild, splashing wallops.

"Try to keep your legs straight," instructor Hajr Adbul-Aziz said.

Jones said she never learned to swim as a child and recalled her panic in a pool while on vacation as a teenager.

"I didn't want them to have that experience," the Baltimore mother said of her children.

Jones' 7-year-old daughter, Tyler Wilson, dressed in a Minnie Mouse swimsuit, attempted the backstroke.

"Remember, C's and circles. Cup your hands," the instructor said, "and pull your arms all the way out of the water."

The girl splashed toward the end and veered into the side.

"Let's try it again," the instructor said.

Once called the Colored YMCA of Baltimore, its members met in west-side houses before Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropist and part owner of Sears, Roebuck & Co., pledged $25,000 for a new building.

Baltimore families and the Young Men's Christian Association contributed the rest — about $100,000 — for 1609 Druid Hill Ave.

It opened in 1916, a four-story brick building with a pool, gym, assembly hall and 53 dormitory rooms.

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Soon, membership jumped from 172 to 812.

In the next six years, nearly 2 million people used The Y in Druid Hill, the Afro-American newspaper reported. More than 40,000 people swam in the pool; 16,000 attended Bible study.

Its mission: to uplift young men.

"It had a huge role in the African-American community," said Lisa Crawley, a researcher at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. "You have a city like Baltimore that has a large black population, but it's a segregated city. You didn't have a lot of opportunities."

During the Depression, board members spent their own money to keep the doors open. And during World War II, visiting soldiers slept in the dorms. The USO held programs there, and big bands played in the gym crowded with servicemen dancing the jitterbug.

"It's always been the place to go for young men," said Dwight Taylor, a retired developer in Baltimore, who swam there as a boy.

In the 1950s, the board opened the doors to white families. Classes expanded the next 20 years into art and archery, boxing and bowling, guitar lessons and charm school.

Membership dwindled to about 350 people in 1976, and The Y in Druid Hill closed. It was losing $20,000 a year, The Baltimore Sun reported.

The city bought the building for $1 and reopened the Y in 1980. Then, a boy could walk in from Druid Hill Avenue and swim for $1.

"If he doesn't have it, we might ask him to pick up some trash or help straighten up the place to get in," acting director Harry Fulford II told The Sun at the time.

Today, The Y in Druid Hill remains unprofitable.

"If we were running it as a business, there's no economic justification," said John Hoey, CEO of The Y in Central Maryland.

The chapter has 13 family centers, including those in Druid Hill and Waverly. About 20 YMCAs operate in Maryland.

At Druid Hill, classes and membership dues account for about $500,000 of the annual budget, staff said. The Y in Central Maryland covers the rest, about $250,000.

That support will continue, Hoey said.

"The Druid Hill Y will be part of what ultimately helps that community get back on its feet," he said. "It has to be relevant."

Last year, when unrest spread after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, the institution stayed open late "to make sure the kids had a safe place to come," said Alston, a retired Y community relations staffer and one of the organizers of Saturday's celebration.

Druid Hill has 573 member families, a decline from last year's 650, officials said. In 2014, it cut rates to encourage new members. Now it costs about $30 a month for adults; other YMCAs in Central Maryland cost $53.

Today, Druid Hill offers preschool, after-school programs, summer camps and, of course, swimming.

"I'm going to swim everywhere," Lakia Parrott, 37, said Thursday. She's learning to swim with her 14-year-old daughter.

Lessons are open to all ages.

On Memorial Day weekend, a 9-year-old girl slipped into a creek in Northeast Baltimore and died.

"I knew her. I knew her mother," said Jones, watching her son and daughter at swim lessons. "That's why it's so imperative they learn."

Now her daughter was doing the backstroke. She was kicking deliberately and swimming toward her mother.

Sinking a little, her face tilted up, she went closer and closer to the end of the pool.

Then, the wall.

She stopped, wiped her eyes and smiled up at her mother.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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If you go

The Y in Druid Hill is holding a community party Saturday to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The party begins at noon outside the building, 1609 Druid Hill Ave.

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