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Introduction Interracial Education Christian Faith and Social Action Industrial Awakening

“Step by Step:” Interracial Education in the Y.W.C.A

Race relations represented the toughest challenge to the YWCA’s identity as a membership-directed association of women.  The Association’s struggles over the course of the twentieth century to achieve meaningful diversity point up the tremendous difficulties faced by any national organization trying to reach consensus in country with such a large and varied populace.  The National Association approached the work in characteristically deliberative fashion, slowly and carefully studying the issues, and developing recommendations, tools, and techniques it hoped would persuade its membership and the public at large that it was the duty of citizens in a democracy and of Christians to work for fundamental justice for all people.

The YWCA of the U.S.A.s initial work with black women and girls,known as its “Colored Work,” was in segregated Associations in cities and on the campuses of historically black colleges.  Though it had stressed from its earliest days that it was an Association for “all kinds of women and girls,” it seems to have been understood by all that mixed race Associations, meetings, and activities were out of the question in the highly segregated nation of the early twentieth century.

Eva Bowles and YWCA 'Colored Work' staff, 1915
Eva Bowles (center front) and YWCA “Colored Work,” staff at a conference in New York, 1915
photograph, 1918

YWCA “colored“ war work staff at Camp Upton, Yapank, New York, 1918

Participation in a May 1914 Negro Student Convention called by John R. Mott of the World Student Christian Federation brought a “new light“ to the work of the YWCA.The Convention brought together black students and educators with “a few sympathetic white friends“ mainly from the YMCA, YWCA, and other Christian associations. Taking their lead from the social gospel movement which provided a religious rationale for social justice activities, Convention speakers extended the focus of the social gospel beyond poverty and labor issues, linking it to racial justice.  They argued that it was the duty of Christian organizations to work to bring justice to African-Americans.

This shift in thinking combined with the dramatic expansion of the work with “colored“ women during World War I, steered the National Association toward a focus on “interracial education“ directed at the YWCAs white members and the public at large.  It was hoped that these increased efforts, along with exposure through personal contact at interracial meetings, would gradually convince the white membership to make race relations a primary concern of the Association.  The staff produced a wide array of program materials including skits, articles, newsletters, study outlines, and books to inform about the issues and offer effective techniques for group interracial work.

photograph, 1918

Report of Colored Student Work Secretary Juliette Derricotte, November 1922

photograph, 1931

Group at YWCA Student Conference, Waveland, Mississippi, 1931

Skin Color and Soul Color
The Womans Press, November 1930

National Association program materials often used creative arts to initiate discussion of concepts such as world fellowship and interracial relations.  This “ceremonial” combines performing arts, poetry and history to explain to the white membership why so many YWCA branches were named for Phyllis Wheatley, the African-American poet.

Pamphlet, Why – Phyllis Wheatley?
Techniques in Race RelationsThree Meetings on Interracial InterestsThe Business Girl Looks at the Negro WorldThe World Best Known to a Negro Industrial Girl
A few of the resources written by Interracial Education Secretary Frances Harriet Williams in the 1930s

Wygal's notes, 1935

Religious Education Secretary Winnifred Wygal was a Conference Leader at the 1935 Southern Industrial Conference.  Her account of the discussions (above) includes careful reporting on the dynamics of the group and her own part (or lack thereof) in the dialogue. “I made no remarks…”

At Home- With People

“At Home – With People: Ways of Banishing Prejudices,” 1945

Experiments in Democracy
Experiments in Democracy, circa 1944

“This pamphlet records some of the steps the USO Division of the National Board YWCA has taken toward achieving its goals of ‘service to all involved in the war effort’ and of setting forward Negro-white relationships in America.”

Fundraising Brochure

The National Association's Interracial Charter, adopted at Convention in 1946, pledged to work toward an interracial experience within the YWCA and to fight against injustice on the basis of race "whether in the community, the nation or the world." This version of the Interracial Charter was published in 1955, the year after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which prompted the YWCA to further investigate its progress towards the goals of the Charter.

Majoring in Minorities

Womans Press advertising poster included in a Program Packet sent to all local YWCAs in 1943

Public AffairsStep by Step with Interracial GroupsThe Christian Citizen and Civil Rights

A few of the resources written by Education Secretary Dorothy Height in the 1940s and 50s

News Clipping: Secret Interracial Meetings of Women in MI

Following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dorothy Height and her friend Polly Cowan devised a program to bring together northern and southern women from the “Cadillac crowd" to develop relationships across races, faiths, and regions.  The resulting program, known as Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS), took teams of northern women to Mississippi during the summer of 1964.  The project's founders articulated the mission of WIMS this way:

“We believe it is important that private citizens of stature and influence make it known that they support the aspirations of the citizens of Mississippi for full citizenship, that they deplore violence, and that they will place themselves in tension-filled situations to try to initiate both understanding and reconciliation." The Wednesdays in Mississippi project sought to lend a “ministry of presence.”

Nearly two decades after adopting its Interracial Charter, policies at the local level continued to exclude African-American members from full participation in the Association.  At its meeting in June of 1963 the National Board allocated funds to launch a country-wide Action Program for Integration and Desegregation of Community YWCAs.   Dorothy Height took leave from her position as Associate Director for Training to head the program.  With passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “the practices implied in our Interracial Charter" became law.

News clipping: Height to heads Y's anti-bias probe

Call to Dialogue and Action

The “Call to Dialogue and Action Kit" from June 1968 was part of a program sponsored by the Office of Racial Justice in 1967 and 1968 to promote “dialogue group workshops” on racial justice issues in Community and student YWCAs.

Eliminating Racism

Spurred by a Conference of Black Women in the YWCA, the 1970 Convention adopted as the YWCA's One Imperative “the elimination of racism wherever it exists, and by any means neccessarry." Following the Convention, the YWCA sponsored a series of workshops, institutes, consultations and meetings as part of its One Imperative.


The Web of Racism

YWCA Poster / Flyer, 1971

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