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Boys & Girls Clubs

NOTE: This entry is about the history and contributions of Boys & Girls Clubs of America.  It was excerpted from the booklet “William Edwin Hall – Boys & Girls Clubs of America”  authored by Anne Nixon and produced by The Human Spirit Initiative, an organization with a mission to inspire people to desire to make a difference and then act on it.

The leaders of The Human Spirit Initiative believe that today’s established organizations were new ideas 75-100 years ago and we owe those ideas to their founders. By studying, researching and communicating the details of the lives of these founding leaders within the context of their times, it is possible to create greater understanding of and commitment to strengthening civil society through individual initiative and collective endeavors in building community. For more information on The Human Spirit Initiative and a list of their publications visit:

Boys & Girls Clubs of America
Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Introduction: Boys & Girls Clubs of America is a national, nonprofit organization which provides programs and services to promote and enhance the development of boys and girls by installing a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging and influence. The mission of the organization is to enable all young people, especially those most in need, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens by providing a safe place to learn and grow, developing ongoing relationships with caring, adult professionals and participating in life-enhancing programs and character development experiences.

The name “Boys & Girls Clubs of America” was officially adopted on September 12, 1990, and girls were officially recognized. As the history of boys clubs reveal, even on the leadership side, women were active participants, and there were important women in the early days too. Today’s national membership is 61% boys and 39% girls.  Since the first club opened in 1860, character development has been the cornerstone of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America experience. National programs are available in the areas of education, the environment, health, the arts, careers, alcohol/drug and pregnancy prevention, gang prevention, leadership development and athletics. Staffed by more than 50,000 trained professionals, there are over 4,000 autonomous local clubs, affiliates of the national organization, serving 4.2 million boy and girls. Clubs are located in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and on U.S.military bases around the world.

Early History of Boys Clubs

The First Club: The first known club was known as “The Dashaway Club.” It was founded in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut by Elizabeth Hammersley and two sisters, Mary and Alice Goodwin. It began very casually. The three women took pity on a group of lonely and shabby boys. They invited them into their homes for refreshments and recreation. The club became so popular that they rented a meeting hall and offered dramatics, music and books. In 1880, Mary Stuart Hall – another public-spirited woman from Hartford (and the first female lawyer in the state of Connecticut) reorganized the “Dashaway Club” as “The Good Will Boys Club.” Hall wanted to prove that even tough street kids, given opportunity and guidance, could get along in society and abide by the rules. She drew upon her legal training to teach these young “citizens” to live by the rules of law. She worked with the boys until her death in 1927. The “Good Will Boys Club” continues today as the Boys & Girls Club of Hartford.

The Boys’ Club of New York: This club dates its beginning to 1870. A young businessman was visiting with the superintendent of a New York City girls’ school when a boy threw a rock through the window. Brushing bits of broken glass from his lap, the young man asked if that kind of event happened very often. When the superintendent admitted that it did, the young man said “I can’t blame the boy any more than I can blame the rock. If he’d had a little excitement or something to do, the boy wouldn’t have thrown the rock.” This event marked the start of the Boys’ Club of New York. The young man was the future multi-millionaire railroad magnate, Edward Henry Harriman.

Street Boys
Street Boys

Today 1,500 boys meet at the Harriman Clubhouse, built in 1917 on New York’s Lower East Side.

Clubs Spread Across the Nation: Some clubs began by accident. One example is the New Haven Boys & Girls Club. In 1871, the United Workers of New Haven were concerned. They had organized a coffee house to lure their members away from overindulgence in the local saloons. The coffee house was so inviting that gangs of street boys invaded it, and something had to be done to keep them away. They hired a Midwestern farm boy, John C. Collins, who had dropped out of Yale when he ran out of money. He was given board and paid one dollar a week to deal with the boy problem. Collins found an empty space, and he stuck a sign on the door that said “Boys’ Club.” This new club was sponsored by local businessmen who were glad to pay to keep those pesky boys off the street. In no time, the club was filled with boys who had nowhere else to go.

Collins tried reading from Horatio Alger and other “inspirational” authors in an attempt to reach the boys that he called “these small atoms of humanity.” He tried to lecture them on manners and cleanliness, but this approach didn’t suit these lively street kids. They only wanted to “have fun and play games.” Collins listened to them and followed their wishes but with an important difference. If games were to be played, rules must be followed. The result was a happy one. Boys learned that following rules made the games more fun to play.  He stayed three years in New Haven. In that time, 2,000 boys enjoyed and had the benefit of his organization. He went on to create club networks throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Soon, the clubs in New York and New England were joined by clubs in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Indianapolis, then California. By 1894, San Francisco had two Boys’ Clubs. Early in the 20th century, with 37 clubs in operation, new clubs in Birmingham and Nashville brought the movement south of the Mason-Dixon line. All these clubs offered low-fee memberships to boys of every religious group. Their centrally located facilities invited boys to join in a variety of activities and to come and go as they wished.

The Origin of the Boys Club Federation: One issue divided the local clubs the question of whether to create a unifying national organization. Many of the club directors (who were known as superintendents at that time) feared the loss of local control. Others recognized the beneficial support that a national organization would offer to individual clubs, especially in the initial period of development or during economic hard times. For years, discussions went on, weighing the pros and cons of such a major decision. Finally, a group of 53 local clubs came to an agreement. In 1906, they met in Boston to form a national organization, but the economic panic of 1907 created fiscal difficulties. Fortunately, the new Federated Boys’ Clubs had an angel – Boston banker Frank Day – who paid rent, telephone, and salary expenses out of his own pocket. A national office became a reality.

Jacob Riis, A Volunteer Leader
Jacob Riis, A Volunteer Leader

The Federated Boys’ Clubs was also fortunate to have Jacob Riis as its first President. Riis was the most prominent social critic of the period and had been a poor and needy young man himself. He was one of 15 children of a schoolteacher and his wife. When, at the age of 21, he came to the United States from Denmark, he had only $40 and worked as a carpenter while he tried to become a reporter. It took more than 15 years for him to become a professional journalist. His career would include both writing and photography, and he was one of the pioneers of photojournalism. As one of the first to use flashbulbs, his atmospheric pictures of the slums by night made him famous. His book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, established his reputation. Riis’ prestige added luster to the organization.

Unfortunately, there were still difficult days ahead for the Federated Boys’ Clubs. Lack of funding reduced the new organization to sharing quarters with the National Playground Association of New York City.  The death of both Jacob Riis in 1914 and the generous benefactor, Frank Day, emphasized the need for help. Rescue came in the form of two men whose names would long be associated with the Boys’ Clubs. First to arrive was C.J. Atkinson to fill the office of Executive Secretary – the highest salaried office in the organization. He had worked with boys since he was a boy himself – teaching Sunday school at age 15. He came to the United States from his native Canada where he had headed the Boys Dominion organization.  Atkinson wasted no time at his desk in a corner of the Playground Association. He packed his bag and set out on the road. He visited clubs, organized regional conferences, and set the Federated Boys’ Clubs on a firm footing.

Atkinson as Executive Secretary was joined by the new President, William Edwin Hall. Hall would continue his prestigious legal and business career while dedicating time

William Edwin Hall, Volunteer Leader
William Edwin Hall, Volunteer Leader

and resources to the movement as a volunteer. He was a man of extraordinary charm and a natural fundraiser. Hall was also part of the Wall Street world and had many friends as well-to-do and prominent as he was. The new national organization now had two important men to share the leadership. Atkinson and Hall would hold these offices for a total of 55 years.

Food Will Win the War
Food Will Win the War

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Boys’ Clubs mobilized with the rest of the country. The national office issued a proclamation to the members of all affiliates. It urged the boys to participate as “messengers, guides or helpers” and “to be of service to their country.” Hall was not just the President of the Boys’ Clubs. He also headed a volunteer organization called the Boys’ Working Reserve. These young men, inspired by Herbert Hoover’s slogan, “Food Will Win the War,” volunteered to work on farms. Training camps were set up all over the country, and groups of boys spent 10 days preparing themselves for farm work. They learned how to harness and drive horses, milk cows, and care for pigs, chickens, and sheep. They learned to plant, plow,cultivate, harrow, and mow. Only boys over sixteen could work on farms, but the younger ones had their own assignments. They planted “war gardens.” This volunteer war work earned the Boys’ Working Reserve a message of gratitude from General Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.

Racial Integration: The millions of African-American families that came north during the twenties in search of a good life had a difficult time. They left homes and family members behind. They faced the trauma of poverty and the distrust of new surroundings, especially when the surroundings happened to be crime infested slums. The situation cried out for the support that the Boys’ Club Federation could offer. In Northern areas, the African-American community had already begun to form their own groups to help their children. Often, these joined with the Boys’ Club Federation to rescue boys in crisis.

Boys at the Wissahickon Club
Boys at the Wissahickon Club

The earliest all African-American club was one of the original 53 – the Wissahickon Boys’ Club of Philadelphia, founded in 1903. William T. Coleman, the first African-American to lead a Boys’ Club, served this club as superintendent from 1911 to 1926, when he was selected to be the Boys’ Club Federation’s first field secretary in charge of promoting and extending club work in African-American communities. He left Wissahickon with 1,100 members and a physical plant valued at $40,000 and it continued to thrive. By 1931, the membership had grown to 1,275 and the plant value to $60,000. This highly successful club had a gymnasium, a reading room, vocational training areas, swimming pool and campsites.

In 1922, the Harlem Boys’ House, in New York City, joined the Boys’ Club Federation to better serve their youth. Only a year later, the Children’s Aid Society reported that this new club had “quieted that whole neighborhood. Eight hundred boys, many of them colored, are enthusiastic members.” The mix of black and white boys seemed to present no problem. C.J. Atkinson reported that a Boys’ Club boy “seemed to have very little concern as to where his Boys’ Club pal and playmates had been born, the color of his skin, the dialect or imperfections of his language, or the church he might attend.” What the boys wanted was to play games, enjoy boxing and basketball, and share this fun withother boys.

In the 1920s, there was greater visibility of influential African Americans. The community had developed its own voices. Outstanding among these was W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) DuBois. He earned degrees from Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. In 1895 he became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. He spent his life as a spokesman for his community, writing 22 books, creating four academic journals, and establishing the Department of Social Work at Atlanta University.

The Great Depression: The events of the 1929 Wall Street crash were startling. Unemployment grew to 25%, jobs were lost at the rate of 12,000 per day, 20,000 companies went bankrupt. The Depression affected all Americans, but for those at the poverty level with no resources, the situation was truly desperate. Nationwide, it was a hard time for families. With unemployment so prevalent, a crisis in domestic life developed. Marriage and childbearing declined. Families lost their homes, some lived on the streets. Others built shanties in parks or even on garbage dumps. These little settlements of shanties were called “Hoovervilles”, an ironic reference to President Herbert Hoover. Waves of desperation took many forms. Suicide rates went up. The Bonus Army, consisting of as many as 20,000 World War I veterans, marched in Washington D.C. in 1932. They demanded immediate cash payment redemption for 20-year bonds issued to them as service veterans. Since the bonds were not yet mature, their demands were refused, and U.S. Army troops were sent in to suppress the marchers. Four veterans died and 1,017 were injured.

It was more important than ever that organizations, such as the Boys’ Clubs of America, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross, offer as much help as possible. But these organizations were also low on funds. The BCA’s national office in New York City had to move from a fashionable midtown location to less expensive quarters. In Detroit, BCA staffers were paid in surplus food and, instead of U.S. dollars, they were given scrip – a substitute money issued by the city as a form of credit. In addition to the Depression, the Boys’ Clubs of America faced another major loss. C.J. Atkinson, the chief professional BCA officer, retired. Without a suitable replacement, President William Hall began to wear two hats and wore them with distinction throughout the1930s, always serving as a volunteer. Hall had this to say: “Everyone pitched in to meet the challenge of the troubled times. Boys’ Club workers accepted smaller salaries; some clubs had established reserve funds, which helped them weather the financial breakdown; many benefactors provided additional funds when it was possible. The national Boys’ Club movement did not lose a single club affiliate during the Depression

The economic disaster that began in 1929 reached bottom with the collapse of the banking system in 1933. People looked to Washington, D.C. for help. The homeless were housed in National Guard halls. Bread lines were a common sight in cities, and thousands of jobless men roamed the countryside or rode the rails. It fell to the new President, Franklin Roosevelt, to offer a “New Deal” to cope with the ills of the suffering country. A major objective of the expanded role of the Federal government during the 1930s was to mend these ills. Some of the efforts included the start of the Social Security system, the Emergency Banking Act to reopen the banks, the Minimum Wage Act of 1938, and the passing of the 21st Amendment to end Prohibition.

Many of Roosevelt’s opponents were critical of the New Deal programs. They thought these actions were bringing a Socialist revolution to this country. Roosevelt’s response was to say, “We waged war against those conditions which make revolution – against the inequities and resentments that breed them.” One of the most radical of Roosevelt’s new programs was the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). It had a dual purpose – to provide jobs for the many young men who could not find work and to improve the ecological structure of the country. Three months after the CCC was proposed, 250,000 young men were enrolled – signing up for six-month periods for the pay of one dollar a day. They had to be approved by the Welfare Department, and they lived in camps run by the Army. They did carpentry, fought fires, and planted trees. Every state had CCC camps that created state parks, national parks, hiking and ski trails.10 The more than 2.5 million young men who eventually participated learned valuable lessons. Some learned to read and write. Others studied typing. All learned the discipline of work, the value of cooperative activities, and pride in a job well done.

The young men of the CCC learned some of the same lessons that adolescents and teenagers learned in the Boys’ Clubs. When David Armstrong, the longtime Director of the Worcester, Massachusetts Boys’ Club, became the Director of the national organization in 1941, he developed this fundamental statement: “The Boys’ Club provides for the wholesome use of leisure time; for the building of health; for the development of recreational and vocational skills; for the leadership and guidance that produce men better fitted for the responsibilities of citizenship.”

Source: The Human Spirit Initiative – Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things –

For More Information: Contact the Boys & Girls Clubs of America at

7 Replies to “Boys & Girls Clubs”

  1. Our historical society has been loaned a sign on which is shown a red cross and the legend “My Acre.” We are told only that it relates to the efforts to feed the troops during World War I. Does anyone know if this had anything to do with the Boys’ Club efforts at raising “victory gardens?”

  2. Neighborhood Boys Club of Philadelphia, located at Front & Queen Streets, has disappeared from Philadelphia history. I attended the club from 1950 to 1957. The club closed. After the closing, the property changed hand and finally was severely damaged by fire. Originally, the building provided refuge for seamen landing in Philadelphia … a Seaman’s Institute. There must be records of the property somewhere. It was funded by the Red Feather.

  3. If it wasn’t for the Boy’s Club my chances of success in life would have been noticeably grim. It offered an environment that gave me counsel, trust, support and rest from a not so happy home. I also bonded with people easier as time went by. Yet I wonder if that would have happened with girls about the club. I had enough issues that clouded my life besides hiding any of it from girls. Guys had different ways of showing trust. They didn’t talk about certain things because it plain didn’t matter to them, as may have to a girl. That environment gave me a little bit more time to sort out who I was without embarrassing myself more having girls around. I suppose this sounds extremely sexist, but my intent is not to deny girls their place in such a club. But knowing, as I do, how boys and girls differ in how they handle problems, stress and success, if having two distinct clubs wouldn’t serve boys and girls better. I truly doubt I would have become the daily
    visitor I was if girls had been part of the club. I could say and act as I felt, without having to watch another side of me getting attacked or even laughed at. Young kids need a place for building trust and confidence. My two daughters never felt comfortable at their Boys and Girls club for similar reasons of Boy talk and girl talk, Boy and Girl choices and values. I write this letter not to condemn or disrespect all the Boys and Girls clubs have done. I just wonder if this feeling is felt by others, or if it has even been expressed. I still give money to the club every year will continue to do so. I just wonder if a Boy Club and a Girl Club set up might be valuable. It certainly saves a lot of money to combine them. But wouldn’t support be more focussed toward each sexes
    needs, more effectively? Just a thought.

    • Dear Jim Thompson: Thank you for the very thoughtful comment on the personal value your experiences at a local Boys Club. You raised a question that is worthy of discussion and I am pleased to approve it for posting. Jack Hansan

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