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Brainerd served as the second chairman of the Executive Committe of the YMCA from 1867-1892. In this unpaid position, Brainerd exerted enormous influence over the direction of the YMCA movement, advocating for an evangelical emphasis and an inclusive stance on race. Initially hesitant to commit to developing overseas YMCAs, Brainerd eventually became a forceful advocate for foreign work. Under his leadership, a system of traveling national secretaries was instituted to work with local associations, an early version of later field systems in the YMCA of the USA. Although he was a man with conservative views, Brainerd advised against setting up racially separate divisions in the YMCA and foresaw an arrangement where whites and blacks would participate together in YMCA state conventions during a period when the YMCA was divided over how to serve African-Americans. As an attorney, he successfully represented a group of African-Americans whose property had been damaged in rioting. He is regarded as a major force in the first generation of truly national YMCA leaders.
The back of the photograph has a handwritten caption reading "Cephas Brainerd 1853. The year he joined the New York YMCA."