Northeastern University's roots

Mathews Arena Courtesy of Northeastern University

Genealogy is the never-ending story of your ancestors as you track them down and learn about the lives they lived. It is also the opportunity to learn about the communities in which they resided. Recently, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the place I now reside and about a university that I visit a lot from October to March, spending many weekend evenings in Matthews Arena, the oldest indoor ice hockey arena still in use for the sport.

A recent Ask-a-Genealogist question had me determining the difference between the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and the YMCLA (Young Men's Catholic Library Association). In looking into this question, I found that the first YMCA to open in the United States was in Boston, on 29 December 1851. Like the other chapters in England and Canada, the organizers were intent on improving a young man’s spiritual, physical, and mental condition. The Boston YMCA offered many educational classes from its founding and, in 1896, established the Evening Institute for Young Men, which would ultimately become Northeastern University.

Like many people, I categorize my life: job, hobby, family. I am sometimes surprised when two of my categories intersect in this way. In addition to learning something new, it reminds me of the joy of family history research, because without that I might not have made this discovery.

After finding this connection between the YMCA and Northeastern University, I went off to dig around on the university’s web site to see what it said about Northeastern’s history. The site states: “Since its founding in 1898, Northeastern University has evolved from a parochial university, serving mostly a local population of recent immigrants, to the largest private national research university in Boston proper…”

Following the formation of the Evening Institute for Young Men in 1896, the YMCA next advertised the “Department of Law of the Boston YMCA,” which had its first class 3 October 1898. This program, which was a huge success, is considered the birth of Northeastern University. As Frank Palmer Speare, who was hired as the Evening Institute’s director, once said: “We started with an eraser and two sticks of chalk.”

At Northeastern’s founding, approximately half the population of Boston was comprised of immigrants or first-generation Americans. The immigrants wanted a better life for their families, and this included education for their children. The YMCA’s Evening Institute and its many other programs assisted these families in realizing their wish.

For a genealogist who now calls Boston home, and spends a lot of time in historic Matthews Arena, this discovery reminds me of how many great opportunities we have today, often as a result of our immigrant ancestors and those who founded organizations to help them.

Rhonda McClure

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer specializing in New England and celebrity research as well as computerized genealogy; is compiler of more than 120 celebrity family trees; has been a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of ten books, including the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition, Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, and Digitizing Your Family History.View all posts by Rhonda McClure