Portland YWCA Buildings

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Early Efforts

Mid-Century Growth

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Building Buildings: Mid-Century Growth

Research by Rose M. Murdock, Tracy Christensen, and Patricia A. Schechter

       The stress of World War I created incentives to extend YWCA programming throughout the city of Portland. The presence of troops and the mobilization of women workers created new demands for support, mentoring, and services, especially for young people. In 1918, women in the Northeast and North Portland neighborhoods made their voices heard at the downtown center.

St. John's, 1937
       In the northern area, formerly the town of St. John's, programming began in the old city hall with rugs, a piano, and plants added to make a "club room" for war work. Here women knitted and sewed for the war effort and a program for camp fire girls in addition to YWCA clubs was held. During the 1920s, the St. John's program moved from city hall to a nearby Baptist Church and then to the Congregational Church. The Great Depression brought both opportunity--in the form of cheap land on Charleston Avenue and N. Leonard--and severe financial stress that almost closed the program. In 1936, a community study was done and the downtown YWCA board backed a new, slightly expanded budget for St. John's that included contruction of a new building on the Charleston Avenue lot. Almost $10,000 in additional support from the surrounding business community was essential to completing the building in 1937. In the words of long-time St. John's YWCA staff secretary, Ina Shaw: "Splendid co-operation with all groups in the community has unified and promoted a spirit of good will that has fostered friendship, kindliness, and satisfaction in the work program of the YWCA."[1] The YWCA partly renovated the buildings in the mid-1980s, and today St. John's is a major provider of senior services in the Portland area.

Williams Avenue Branch
       The Williams Avenue YWCA's Committee of Management drew African-American women from a cross-section of the Portland community, especially educators, church leaders, and aspiring professional women. Marie Smith was a leading member of the Committee from the time of its founding in the late teens, and Dura E. Rice was an especially dedicated and effective staff leader in the 1930s and 40s. Programming ran the gamut, including Girl Reserves, bible classes, musical groups, mothers' clubs, women's clubs, social and gymnasium activities, a weekly community theatricals night, and a boys' program partly overseen by the YMCA. The Williams Avenue YWCA also served as a base for some anti-racism activism, with its staff overseeing the completion of a study in 1936 that found that despite full voting rights, African Americans faced significant discrimination in employment, union access, government services, and housing.[2]

       In contrast to the chamber of commerce and white YWCA leadership support that buoyed the St. John's branch development, black women struggled mightily to secure the financial and political support needed to maintain the Williams Avenue facility. Despite their cooperation with the USO's request to forfeit their building "for the duration" in order to house black soldiers and their accommodation to the ambiguities of the YWCA's post-war desegregation intiative, the Portland YWCA board recoiled from meeting the black community's needs--which included boys' work and activities--in the 1950s. Executive Director Essie Maguire called the program at Williams "really a queer thing" because it took on "activities and interests not purely those along the objectives and purposes of the YWCA."[3] As plans for a new building downtown heated up, board support for maintaining Williams evaporated and the building was closed and sold in 1959, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.

1. Ina L. Shaw, "History of the St. Johns Branch YWCA," 15 April 1938, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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2. "Study of Basic Civil Rights for Negroes Made by the Young Women's Christian Association of Portland, Oregon," March 1936, YWCA National Records, New York City (Microfilm, Reel #207).
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3. "Williams Avenue YWCA Study," April 1956, and Essie L. Maguire to Irma T. Huppel, 26 April 1950, both in Williams Avenue Pages, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon. Quotation from Report by Essie L. Maguire, 30 January 1956, Sale of Building File, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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