When the Brooklyn YWCA was founded in 1888, it admitted women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds on an equal basis. At the turn of the century, however, like many other institutions across the country, the Brooklyn "Y" instituted segregation in its activities and residence halls. Although the "colored" YWCA was opened at the request of African American ministers and others in the community, the women affected objected. The Ashland Place association was established in 1903, first on Lexington Avenue, after white homeowners strongly protested establishment of a "colored" Association on Lafayette Avenue. The branch moved to its first building on Ashland Place (#45) in 1919, and later to 221 Ashland Place.
When the National Board of the YWCA was formed in 1906 from the merger of the International Board of Women's and Young Women's Christian Associations and the American Committee of Young Women's Christian Associations, four existing African American associations (Washington, DC, Baltimore, Brooklyn and New York City) were accepted as member associations. Over the next few years, the new organization discussed its race policy and the concerns of white women in southern associations that "were afraid that they might be forced to share facilities with African American women at local and national meetings." By 1910, the National Board had determined that if possible "colored" associations should be a branch of a central "white" association (thus Ashland Place became a branch); if there was not a white association, an independent colored association could be formed.
By 1937 the new Executive director of Ashland Place, Anna Hedgeman, was actively involved in efforts to increase employment opportunities for young women of color, many of whom were college students. One such effort centered around trying to convince a local "ten-cent store" (in an African American neighborhood) to hire African American clerks. Hedgeman organized a picket line. Although it was unsuccessful, she continued to work toward improving employment options. When department stores advertised on the Brooklyn College campus for clerks during the Christmas holidays, Hedgeman worked with white and African American women in the Federation of Protestant Churches (as well as the Brooklyn Urban League and the NAACP) to persuade the stores to hire African American clerks. It took a campaign of economic pressure from the women and their large charge accounts to effect change, but it worked.
221 Ashland Place. Originally the site of branch offices and activities, the building was converted to a residence for African American women in 1943 after the integration of programs and activities. It became a fully integrated residence in 1946.
Young women outside the Ashland Place branch, at 221 Ashland Place.
Program of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Ashland Place branch in 1923, at the first location on Ashland Place (#45).
In the midst of World War II, given the world situation and the purpose of the YWCA, the Ashland Place branch Committee of Management supported a resolution of the branch's Interracial Committee that favored steps toward total integration of the activities of the Brooklyn YWCA. The Committee also supported the recommendation that YWCA camps, including Robin Hood, be opened to all.
This Feb. 1943 statement from the National Board of the YWCA was included in the March 1943 Executive Board minutes of the YWCA of Brooklyn, as they voted to integrate, three years before the National YWCA took such action.
Pre-1943 swimming class at the YWCA.
This brochure describes changes in staff, committees, and programs at the Ashland Place branch following the 1943 integration of all YWCA of Brooklyn programs and facilities.
A post-integration photo of swimming lessons at the YWCA.
From its beginnings in 1858, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) has been dedicated to bringing women together to consider, discuss, and ameliorate America’s racial, social, and economic ills. Fueled with, and informed by, the spirit of progressive reform, the YWCA’s largely Protestant, middle-class membership was further engaged in “Christian social work,” or community activism, which was directed particularly at women less fortunate than themselves. In Arkansas, the best known YWCA was located in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Founded in 1911, the Little Rock YWCA, which was located at 4th and Scott streets, was organized to assist women and girls in the community by providing them with access to education, recreational activities, employment, and lodging. Its original founders were Mery Omily Hall, Laura Bunch, Clara Lenon, and Nellie Dooley. Throughout the years, the YWCA offered courses in English, French, and German, as well as courses in embroidery, hygiene, and physical education. Many of its activities were supported by the Community Chest of Little Rock, the predecessor of the United Way. Little Rock YWCA members also supported a summer camp in Benton (Saline County) on the Saline River. Another of their objectives was ensuring that young women and girls were provided with religious instruction. In fact, in its constitution, the Little Rock YWCA asserted that its purpose was to “advance the physical, social, intellectual, moral and spiritual interests of young women.” Members encouraged attendance of the YWCA’s weekly Bible classes and its monthly vesper services.
For all of its lofty goals, particularly its dedication to the religious and educational development of all women, the Little Rock YWCA’s membership and programs were limited to white women and girls. Like YWCAs throughout the South, the Little Rock YWCA was an important institution in the local community, but its membership was unable to overcome deeply entrenched racial segregation. Although the national YWCA often took progressive stands on race, it was virtually powerless to change the South’s Jim Crow laws.
Despite their exclusion from the Little Rock YWCA, African-American women had been determined to found an organization that catered to their community’s needs. But black women could not form a branch of the YWCA unless a “central” white YWCA existed. Opening in 1921, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA’s early local leadership included educated, middle-class black women like Alice Meaddough, Elizabeth Stephens Thornton (daughter of Charlotte Andrews Stephens, Little Rock’s first black public school educator), and Amelia Bradford. The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA’s facility opened on the corner of 10th and Gaines streets, where it operated as a branch of the predominately white Little Rock (Central) YWCA and served as the recreational center for the black community. Like the Central YWCA, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA sponsored courses on arts and crafts, religion, hygiene, manners, and physical education, but it also went one step further by providing services exclusively to African Americans because the services were either unavailable or were segregated. In tandem with the Arkansas Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, for example, its members raised funds to construct a sanatorium for black tuberculosis patients and assisted black refugees during the Flood of 1927. The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA was a mainstay of the black community until it was “dissolved” and “absorbed” into the Central YWCA in 1971.
Although the records are sparse, chapters of the YWCA were also located in Brinkley (Monroe County), Crossett (Ashley County), Mount Pleasant (Izard County), Paragould (Greene County), Prescott (Nevada County), Stuttgart (Arkansas County), Warren (Bradley County), Hot Springs (Garland County), Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), El Dorado (Union County), Helena (Phillips County), Fort Smith (Sebastian County), and Texarkana (Miller County). The seventh national convention was held in Hot Springs in 1922. During World War II, Japanese American internees at the Jerome Relocation Center (in Drew and Chicot counties) were members of the relocation center’s YWCA. Student YWCAs were also founded at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1904 and at Arkansas A&M College, known today as the University of Arkansas at Monticello, in 1912. Of all the YWCA chapters that once existed in Arkansas, only the Bess Chisum Stephens YWCA, located in Little Rock, remains active as of 2011.
For additional information:
———. “‘We Would Be Building’: A History of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Little Rock.” Pulaski County Historical Review 44 (Fall 1996): 54–79.
Haynie, Paul D. “Religion and Morals at the University of Arkansas in the 1920s.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 45 (Summer 1986): 148–167.
Robertson, Nancy Marie. Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations and the YWCA. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Roydhouse, Marion W. “Bridging Chasms: Community and the Southern YWCA.” In Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Sims, Mary S. The Natural History of a Social Institution: The YWCA. New York: The Woman’s Press, 1936.
State Agricultural School Bulletin (Fourth District) 5 (May 1914): 25. Special Collections and Reference. University of Arkansas at Monticello, Monticello, Arkansas.
Last Updated: 09/01/2022