Historical Markers
Wissahickon Boys Club Historical Marker
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Wissahickon Boys Club

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
328 West Coulter St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

While the concept of separate but equal was, by definition, never truly equal at all, in the long march toward integration, even segregated facilities played vital roles in the fight against Jim Crow. The Wissahickon Boys Club, the first organization of its kind in the nation created to serve the needs of young African Americans, was certainly one of them.

Wissahickon School Club building, corner of Pulaski Avenue and Coulter Street, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1913.
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Wissahickon School Club building, corner of Pulaski Avenue and Coulter Street,...
Originally founded not long after the Civil War as the Pulaskitown Free Kindergarten for the sons of freed slaves and black domestics working in and around Germantown, it expanded, under Quaker stewardship in the 1880s, into something more. Based on the burgeoning Boys Club ideal, it began offering organized recreational programs and other out-of-school activities. Want to play baseball? Come to the club. Want help learning a trade? Come to the club. Need tutoring in your studies? Come to the club. Need a home away from home? Come to the club.

While the Boys Club concept was not new, the Wissahickon edition was unlike its predecessors. From the club's model, established by social reformers in Hartford in 1860 as a gathering place for newsboys to safely congregate when they were not working, to the first official club to bear the Boys Club name, in New York, in 1876, to the hosts of others that sprouted in industrial cities up and down the east coast before the Wissahickon Boys Club opened the doors of its new building on the corner of Pulaski Avenue and Coulter Street in 1885, the boys were white. Wissahickon was not just the first such African-American club, it remained the only one into the early part of the twentieth century. Indeed, of the fifty-three founding clubs from New England to California that came together in 1906 to form The Boys Club Federation, Wissahickon was the only one from a black community.

Within its walls, boys from the ages of six to eighteen were taught lessons of good citizenship, and sports–and the qualities of leadership, sportsmanship, and teamwork that they fostered–were an important part of the club's program. By 1910, Wissahickon was fielding a basketball team that traveled to play clubs in Washington and New York, and in 1913 it fielded a championship football team. In 1924, the club became one of the first Boys" clubs anywhere to add an outdoor swimming pool, affectionately dubbed "The Bathtub," and, with it, a swim program and swimming team.

Head and shoulders photograph of a football player in uniform.
NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley, circa 1970.
Over time, the club became a real home away from home. In addition to educational and vocational programs, and sports programs ranging from the intramural to highly competitive leagues, especially in basketball and baseball, there were movies in the evening, field trips, and summer camps. "It gave direction and structure to youngsters" lives," recalled one long-time alum of the club who remained involved with the club through his adulthood.

Several of those youngsters grew up to make important contributions, among them entertainer Bill Cosby; NFL Hall of Famer Herb Adderley; Frank Washington, a member of the first Harlem Globetrotter team to travel the world; and–after the club crashed through the gender line and became the Wissahickon Boys and Girls Club in 1981–Donna Reed Miller, a Philadelphia City Councilwoman, who emphasized that the club "motivated a lot of us as young people to stay in school, continue our education, and go as far as you can go and be whatever it is that you wanted to be."

It is still doing that, from the home it relocated to in 1985 at 321 Coulter Street. The club continues to sponsor active basketball, baseball, and flag football leagues, and health and fitness programs, as well as art, science, and computer classes and other educational programs. And beyond Wissahickon's, there are several other Boys and Girls Clubs chapters thriving in Philadelphia, as well as throughout the state.
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