Adrienne Lash Jones, "Young Women's Christian Association," pp. 1299-1303, in Darlene Clark Hine et al., eds., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993).

YOUNG WOMEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION

        One Imperative: To Thrust Our Collective Power
        to Eliminate Racism Wherever It Exists
        and by Any Means Necessary. (YWCA 1970)

       When the above declaration was approved by the national convention of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in 1970, it signaled a dramatic climax to the organization's century-long struggle to fulfill its social mission. At that juncture in its history, the YWCA was giving voice to its experience as the oldest and largest women's multiracial association in the world, and yet, in all of its work with, and for, women, the most overwhelming obstacle to social progress continued to be relations between the races. At the height of the civil rights and Black Power movements, YWCA members asserted that by focusing on racism, women of all races could identify their positions as oppressors as well as oppressed persons and could then work more effectively to combat the ills of society.

       The multiracial membership of the YWCA resulted from both incidental and deliberate actions by its membership. As early as 1870, only four years after the formation of the Boston YWCA, and only nineteen years since the fist association was begun in England, Black churchwomen in Philadelphia represented a Colored Women's Christian Association at the second annual national convention of Women's Christian Associations. During the remainder of the nineteenth century, as Black women migrated in large numbers to industrial centers, similar associations were begun in an effort to meet the increasing need for social services and lodging. These early city associations were founded and operated by Black women because their race excluded them from organizations established to serve white women. However, in spite of their adoption of the name Young Women's Christian Association, and despite their unceasing efforts to affiliate with their white counterparts, these Black associations were not accepted as part of the growing national movement of women's associations that combined to form the International Board of Women's and Young Women's Christian Associations.

       By contrast, as part of a separate movement of students organizing YWCAs, Black students at predominantly white colleges as well as on Black college campuses were welcomed as members. This group's national umbrella organization was known as the American Committee of Young Women's Christian Associations. There were cordial relations between the two national bodies, but they worked as independent organizations. The American Committee associations were most often led by white students and teachers. With much emphasis on the task of evangelizing the world, this group believed that part of their Christian mission included ministering to Black and Native American students as well as working as foreign missionaries. Affiliates of the American Committee were closely aligned with the world and the international committees of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which pioneered work among minority students. Stressing prayer and Bible study in preparation for a life of service, the women's student associations grew rapidly among young Black women at the turn of the century.

       When the national organizations merged in 1906 to form one national board, fourteen Black student associations formally affiliated with the American Committee and four Black city associations were recommended for affiliation.[A] Although these associations by no means represented all of the work being done by Black women under the name Young Women's Christian Association, Addie H. Hunton, a Black social worker who was hired by the new national board to assess the work of these groups, believed they held the most promise.

       However, true to the segregationist policies of the era, white women were reluctant to accept Black affiliates, especially in city associations. Their concern centered on two main issues. First, they did not want to assume fiscal responsibility for the struggling Black associations. The second issue was equally compelling. White Southern women especially worried that "any parallel working among colored people would mean attendance by both at conferences," and they were not willing to suffer the embarrassment of being seated at regional and national meetings alongside Black women from their own cities.

       The early solution was to affiliate already established Black associations directly with the national board in a separate category, independent of the white associations. This arrangement was not satisfactory in most cases, however, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that, without financial support from the larger white associations, the small Black operations could not afford professional leadership or provide quality services. It soon became apparent that the more expedient arrangement, especially in fast-growing northern cities, was to have a central association, which usually was all white, and so-called colored branches. Moreover, "no work was to be undertaken . . . to promote Association work among colored people in the cities in the South."

       Under this arrangement, branch committees of management were mostly free to design their own programs, and a few were responsible for raising operating funds. Prior to World War I, the central association designated members of its board of directors to serve on a subcommittee for colored work. This committee, which reported back to the board, acted as liaison to maintain control over personnel and major capital decisions. Black women tolerated this structure as a trade off for fiscal support, leadership training, and credibility as part of the powerful national organization. Moreover, affiliation provided access to a national network of white Christian leaders who sometimes could influence the quality of local race relations. During this same period, according to association records, Black student association work grew to include 150 institutions. At white colleges where there were representatives groups of Black students, some organized separate associations.

       The benefit of affiliation was dramatically illustrated when, during World War I, the national board received $4 million from the government to supervise war-work activities for women; of this amount, $400,000 was set aside for work among Black women. During the war period, Eva Bowles, secretary for colored work for the national board, supervised the expansion of service to Black women--from sixteen affiliates to association work in forty-nine communities covering twenty-one states and the District of Columbia. In the South Atlantic region alone, at least 4,000 Black women and girls were enrolled. In a two-year period, Bowles also expanded the opportunity for hundreds of competent Black women to become employees and volunteer leaders in the association.[B] At the end of the war, the association allocated $200,000 of its remaining funds to build the Phyllis Wheatley branch in Washington, D.C.

       Association work expanded to include two principal groups of women. The first emphasis was on providing recreation and housing services for young women migrating to urban centers in search of employment. Because many of these cities were in the South, association work for this group had been almost nonexistent. YWCA workers mobilized Black leaders and with their help organized activities, some skills development, and employment and residence registries. This work, which began as a supplement to government-sponsored "hostess houses" for the families of soldiers near army camps, formed the nucleus of postwar center development. The second thrust was incorporating the large number of young women who had been organized into Girl Reserve Clubs, originally formed as so-called Patriotic Leagues to support the war. These clubs contained girls between the ages of ten and eighteen in schools all over the nation.[C]

       From their beginning activities as founders, members, and participants in the YWCA, Black women petitioned in various ways to be recognized and represented in the organization's decision-making bodies. As early as 1915, Black and white women met to try and resolve racial relations between central and colored branches in southern cities where associations existed prior to the 1907 agreement and to demand Black representation on regional field committees. After World War I, having greatly increased their numbers as members in the association, Black women began to demand more control of the work of their own branches and to insist that their committee chairs become members of the local central committees; moreover, they pressed for representation on the national board. In 1924, Elizabeth Ross Haynes, the national board's first full-time Black staff member, was elected as the first Black member of the board. Thereafter, Black women also were represented on regional field committees. Further, in response to protests by Black members, the national board resolved to hold national conventions only in cities that would assure accommodations to all members in attendance. Although Black women were critical of the slow rate of progress, the so-called biracial policies of the organization were considered quite advanced for the time.

       In 1931, the national board phased out its colored work subcommittee and assigned headquarters-based Black workers to mainstream departments. Initially this plan was greeted by the Black staff as a step toward interracial work. However, not long after it was put into place, Bowles resigned in protest, charging that in reality, "the plan would diminish the participation of Negroes in decision making." In response to her allegations, as well as to the mounting complaints of Black association leaders, the national board formed a committee on interracial policies that functioned for ten years. During this period, the board also commissioned a national study of race relations in the association.[D]

       After a careful review of local associations, the national organization adopted an interracial charter in 1946, which served as an internal sanction against all forms of segregation in instances where there were no legal restrictions. This action was preceded in 1942 by a decision by Black association leaders to disband their Negro Leadership Conference. (The conference dated back to the immediate post-war period when Black residents of the South Atlantic region had no opportunity to function as part of normal association life; from their meetings had grown a national gathering of Black YWCA representatives.) The unanimous 1946 vote was recorded as the recognition "that in the YWCA, the high value is its interrelatedness--its process of togetherness in working on the common concerns of humanity" (Bell and Wilkins 1944). [See annotation D for full citation.]

       Adoption of the interracial charter was a watershed in the life of the organization. It meant that associations were expected to actively integrate Black women into programs, facilities, and governing bodies. Eventually it meant dismantling all segregated branches. In spite of strong resistance in many southern cities, including a few court battles against the national board, and more subtle resistance in other parts of the country, the YWCA desegregation effort was fairly successful. To help local associations prepare for the change, the board assigned Dorothy Height to the position of interracial education secretary. In 1963, her position was changed to director of the Office of Racial Justice, reflecting a more aggressive approach. The new office was in charge of planning strategies to overcome internal segregation and to assist in the desegregation of all facilities.

       The 1970 convention that voted in favor of the association's "one imperative" to eliminate racism was preceded by a series of interracial awareness gatherings for local members and a national board-sponsored retreat for 500 Black leaders in the organization. During a period when Black members had become disillusioned with the slow rate or progress and the high emotional cost of integration, the issue had become whether to remain part of the association or separate in order to be in complete charge of services to Black women. After much agonizing, and with the thoughtful leadership of Helen Jackson Wilkins Claytor, the first Black president of the national board, the group concluded that the organization represented a historic investment for Black women as well as white women, and that they would present their "imperative" to the total convention.

       Although the Young Women's Christian Association remains an organization with a predominantly white membership, its leadership has mirrored the organization's commitment to integration. Between 1973 and 1990 the organization chose two Black women as national executive director, and two Black women have served as president of the national board. Also, the programs and projects of local associations are scrutinized to assure the inclusion of women of all races represented in the population.

Abstract Document
List
Introduction

A. The C.Y.W.C.A. in Baltimore, discussed in this project, was among these four Black city associations.
       Back To Text

B. For a partial listing of cities with such Colored Y work, see Document 25A, "Information from War Work Centers."
       Back To Text

C. The best summary of these wartime activities is presented in Jane Olcott, The Work of Colored Women, (New York: Colored Work Committee War Work Council, 1919).
       Back To Text

D. This study was Juliet V. Bell and Helen J. Wilkins, Interracial Practices in Community Y.W.C.A.'s (New York: National Board, Y.W.C.A., 1944).
       Back To Text

| Documents | Teacher's Corner | Links | Search | About Us | Home |