Swimming against the current

In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education had helped launch the postwar civil-rights movement, Eleanor Roosevelt agreed to speak in Western North Carolina — but only if she could address a racially mixed audience. The venue for the former First Lady’s talk was the Asheville YWCA — an emerging leader in the local push for integration.

Promoting social change was nothing new for the international organization; in many ways, the group’s history parallels the history of social struggle over the last 150 years. Born in London in the mid-1800s, the YW was designed to “combine religious fervor with practical social action.” By the late 19th century, YWCA programs had spread across the United States, offering pioneering facilities for African-American and Native American as well as white women.

Those facilities were separate, of course. And though they would remain so for another 80 years or more, as early as 1915, the group held the first interracial conference in the South. During the ’30s, YW members began speaking out against lynching and racial terrorism. And in 1936, the first interracial student conference in the U.S. took place in North Carolina.

Still, it was an uphill battle. And if Roosevelt’s visit helped lay the groundwork for interracial programs in Asheville, the real struggle was still to come.

In 1962, amid planning for the new “black” YW that was to replace the one demolished to make way for Interstate 240, Thelma Caldwell, the director of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch for Negroes, set two prophetic requirements: that the new building not be located in an African-American residential neighborhood and that its new name not tie the organization to its segregated roots. The following year, Caldwell was named executive director of both Asheville branches — making her only the second black YWCA executive director in the country, according to the national organization.

But Caldwell’s vision didn’t stop there. In 1968, the Asheville branch became the first officially integrated YWCA in the South. And an April 22, 1970 headline in the Asheville Citizen-Times proclaimed, “Y Women Seek to Eliminate Racism.” In the article, Caldwell gave notice that “the thrust of the Young Women’s Christian Association’s program of action for 1970-73 will be the elimination of racism where it exists and by any means necessary. … It will be the focus for a determined effort to eliminate poverty, to end war and to build peace, to reshape the quality of the environment, to revolutionize society’s expectations of women and their own self-perception, as well as to involve youth, intentionally, both at the local and national levels in the association’s decision-making process.”

It was a daunting agenda. And much of the grunt work would be done not by larger-than-life male heroes but by a group of women more accustomed to busying themselves with raising families, attending church and taking the odd sewing class.

A lifelong commitment

In Asheville, the first YW was founded in 1906 in Henrietta House on Biltmore Avenue. In 1922, the Phyllis Wheatley Branch for Negroes was opened on College Street. A $10,000 renovation and addition in 1938 gave the Wheatley Branch the only fully equipped gymnasium for African-Americans in the South.

“It was a small Y,” recalls current YWCA Boosters Club President Jean Bowman, who witnessed those historic changes. “I grew up in the Y; I even went to camp there. After I was married, I just fell in [with the programs]. It’s a lifelong commitment.”

The building that replaced the Wheatley branch came to be known as the South French Broad YWCA. It was built without a pool, so when, in 1963, the organization issued what it called its “Challenge of Integration,” the first integrated swimming classes in Asheville were held at the Grove Street facility (aka the “white branch”).

“Some of the [white] members took some of the African-American children to the pool,” explains longtime Boosters Club member Llewellyn Perry. “At that time, the [Community] Relations Council held lots of workshops on integration. The ones who [participated] were very enthusiastic, but I didn’t think there was general support. That was during the time when they were having sit-ins for the lunch counter, so the YW looked very progressive.”

And though the two Asheville branches were joined on paper in 1968, it would be two more years before the separate memberships came together under one roof. In 1970, the YW board voted to close the Grove Street branch and move operations to the newer South French Broad facility — the “black branch.”

In response to the criticism and petitions that greeted this surprising decision, the YWCA organized a series called “Black-White Dialogues,” in which, as a 1970 news release put it, the community was invited to candidly “tell it like it is.”

That same year, YW board member Wilma Ray proclaimed, “Racism is a dirty word, a controversial word, but more significantly, it is a virulent, active, infectious malaise of the spirit.” And in a Citizen-Times story, Ray blasted the national organization’s resistance to integration, “expressing the hope that Asheville will not be a party to the ‘Southern strategy’ of the national administration.”

“It is very clear that the Southern strategy is designed to forestall the prospects for the kind of institutional, behavioral and attitudinal change which will make equality of opportunity a reality,” continued Ray.

“It was wonderful,” says Perry, recalling that now-distant time. “I was interested in volunteering at the YW because I knew it as one of the progressive groups. Even my church wasn’t doing enough [to foster integration] at the time.” It was out of a desire to support integration that the Boosters Club was formed.

Not everyone shared Perry’s sentiments, however. “When [the YWCA] was integrating, there was a great deal of opposition,” recollects longtime Booster Mary Parker.

An Oct. 23, 1970 Citizen-Times headline proves her point. “Merger of YWCAs in Asheville Running Into Stiff Opposition,” it read. And the accompanying story observed, “Making one YWCA out of two when the basic ingredients are black and white is proving about as easy in Asheville as mixing oil and water.”

YW President Virginia “Jinx” Bailey was quoted saying: “The Asheville YWCA has been one association, on paper at least, since 1968. … In practice, however, only one branch of the Asheville YWCA is used freely by both blacks and whites, and that is the building at South French Broad. Depending on the program, participation there can be all-white, all-black or varying mixtures of the two.”

She added, “It’s not easy to take the first step. Most people are unreasonably afraid.”

“We had to be intentional about integrating,” remembers Perry. “What I liked about the YWCA was that different people came together, especially for the International Delights Dinners.” The multicultural affairs were designed to bring together a divided community.

Bowman, however, downplays the drama. “It wasn’t anything,” she says with a shrug. “They didn’t raise any Cain or anything, and we just went on with it.”

But however different people’s memories may be today, segregation was clearly coming to an end. And during the growing pains of integration, the Asheville YW held its ground, notwithstanding what the critics said. Besides, once the process was started, there was no turning back.

In an Oct. 24, 1970, Citizen-Times article titled “Criticism Clouding YWCA’s Branch Consolidation Plan,” Bailey reportedly “expressed surprise at the depth of racial overtones indicated in the protests.” Ironically, however, integration proponents found an unlikely ally in the budget. As Bailey put it, “The possibility of reversing the decision appears extremely remote simply because there isn’t enough money.”

Deeper than race

In 1972, with racial sensitivities running high, the YW took yet another bold step: It looked around to see what else needed changing. And because the organization’s mission involved empowering women, the group decided to turn its attention to the plight of teen moms.

At that time, high-school-age girls who became pregnant were not allowed to remain in school. Single motherhood and lack of education did not spell success, and the harsh rule sentenced them to a life of poverty. So the YW began to sponsor continuing education for the girls. A year later, the organization received a $60,000 grant to provide daycare for young mothers seeking to complete their education.

These days, pregnant teens can remain in the classroom, but their struggle hasn’t lessened — and neither has the YW’s commitment to helping them. Tangela Ballard has served as coordinator of the MotherLove program for the past two years, working to match teen moms and moms-to-be with mentors who help guide them within the school system, eliminating dropouts.

“Some of [the girls] feel like they’re in it by themselves,” she explains. “The first thing I do with a new participant is take the time with her.” Ballard adds: “I’ve always had a heart for kids, and I love making an impact on someone’s life. Sometimes I get a call at 2 or 3 a.m. and I’m going to the hospital with them.”

The young women Ballard works with range in age from 12 to 18. And if the idea of a pregnant 12-year-old might seem heartbreaking, MotherLove aims to replace tragedy with support. In collaboration with the Asheville City Preschool, the program picks up teen moms at their homes and delivers them and their children to daycare. From there, a bus transports the girls to school. There’s also the Lunch Bunch, a monthly group meeting where program participants can come together with their peers and hear assorted speakers.

“As an African-American, [teen pregnancy] is a great concern,” notes Ballard. “A lot of girls want to get pregnant; they think it’s cute, or they’re searching for love in all the wrong places. Then they have the baby, and … wow!”

To tackle that perception problem, MotherLove goes into the schools and talks to students about preventing pregnancy. On those excursions, Ballard packs an “empathy belly” to give teen boys a taste of what their girlfriends face. To date, the program boasts an impressive success rate — no repeat pregnancies prior to graduation — and this school year, there were seven high-school graduates.

After MotherLove, women can continue to receive support through Circles of Hope, a weekly group that meets as part of New Choices: Strategies for Success. Circles of Hope is open to all women facing financial struggles, and the Thursday-evening meetings include childcare and dinner, to make it easier for participants to attend.

New Choices, the more regimented umbrella program, began five years ago as the Network for Empowerment and Women’s Self-sufficiency (NEWS). A state mandate regulates all such programs across the state and determined the common label of New Choices. “We get a lot of funding from the state to do case management for displaced homemakers, so there are a lot of qualifications to be met,” explains Stephanie Johnson, who coordinates the local program. One such requirement is that participants must have done unpaid labor in their own homes for five years in order to receive the services, which are funded largely by filing fees for divorce.

A key component of New Choices is free drop-in daycare, available two days a week from 8 a.m. to noon. “Boy, what women are going through with transportation!” Johnson exclaims. “It’s hard to find childcare and to find people to talk to about what you’re going through.”

She continues, “I think we not only help women to strategize ways to deal with their situations, but we’re doing that across race lines. When you create opportunities for folks to step out of their cultural norm, it opens a rich dialogue.”

New Choices offers everything from group trips to take in a dance performance to lectures by representatives of such diverse groups as the Mountain Microenterprise Fund and the Asheville Housing Authority.

“Empowerment is a buzzword. What does it mean? To educate people. As I see a need arise, I try to organize around that need,” muses Johnson. “If you give someone the tools they need, the sky’s the limit.”

“A very pleasant group”

For nearly 150 years, dedicated YWCA staffers and volunteers have worked to provide communities with tools — and sometimes a nudge in the right direction.

Then again, sometimes the necessary tools are as simple as a swimming pool, some exercise equipment and a yoga class. The South French Broad YWCA kept those goals in mind, too, when it was raising $3.9 million a few years ago to update its facilities. That successful campaign, made possible by donations from local businesses and families, resulted in a face-lift and/or overhaul of the pool, the gym, meeting spaces, daycare, summer camps and after-school programs as well as a whole new building.

Club W, the YW’s fitness program, offers low-cost packages to individuals and families in the community. The gym features all new equipment. “Men are welcome, too,” insists Marketing Director Ami Worthen. “We have male members, but we’re more oriented toward the female population.”

She adds: “A lot of people don’t know about us [as a gym]. In some ways Asheville’s still segregated, because people still tend to go to the places they’ve always gone.”

That’s not exactly what former Director Thelma Caldwell had in mind when she dreamed of an integrated facility. But in many ways, change is still in the air. “The youth programs focus on diversity themes,” stresses Worthen. “We’ve been getting more Hispanic families, and we’d love for more people from different areas of Asheville to bring their kids here.”

And perhaps those children will imbibe the kind of experience Booster Mary Parker still remembers from the days when the local YW was a pioneer for civil rights. “We used to … do fund-raisers,” she recalls, naming several trips the mixed-race group took. And though dismantling the barriers of segregation wasn’t the events’ primary purpose, “It ended up being a very pleasant group of black and white people making friends.”

[To learn more about the YWCA and its programs, call 254-7206 or visit www.ywcaofasheville.org.]

Alli Marshall is a regular contributor to Xpress.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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