Tuesday History: Thelma Caldwell calls out the YWCA’s shortcomings

MAKING HISTORY: In 1965, Thelma Caldwell became the executive director of the Central YWCA in Asheville: the first African-American in the South to hold the position.
MAKING HISTORY: In 1965, Thelma Caldwell became the executive director of the Central YWCA in Asheville: the first African-American in the South to hold the position. Photo Courtesy of the Asheville YWCA Photograph Collection located in the D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections at UNC Asheville

Throughout her adult life, Thelma Caldwell was actively involved in the YWCA and is remembered for her crucial efforts on behalf of Asheville’s integration. She began her career at the Wilmington, Del., YWCA as teen program director, after spending time there as a volunteer. Caldwell would go on to become branch executive director for several YWCA branches, both in the United States and abroad.

Upon her arrival in the mountains, by way of Portland, Maine, Caldwell became the branch director of the Asheville Phyllis Wheatley Branch in 1961. Despite the local YWCA’s decades of discussions and programs on the topic of racial understanding, Asheville’s two local branches remained segregated, operating out of separate buildings.

In a 1962 article entitled “What We Saw and What We Did,” attributed to Caldwell by UNC Asheville archivist Colin Reeve,” Caldwell addresses the YWCA’s early hypocrisy and shortcomings with respect to its own integration.

“In 1962, we as a Public Affairs Committee of the Asheville Y.W.C.A. looked at our community and saw challenging conditions. We saw many things which needed changing in order to create a better, more livable world for more people to enjoy. Lunch-rooms needed to be opened to all on an equal basis; motels needed to be made available to all people; job opportunities needed to be enlarged; education needed to be revitalized; integration needed to be reinspired; and new job training plans needed to be undertaken. We began work to help accomplish some of these changes.

Then a telephone conversation — rather a rude conversation — changed our outlook!

A local motel owner, furious because of suggestions which had been made to him regarding the opening of his place of business to people of all races, called the Y.W.C.A. His comments were curt and barbed. His questions were sharp — our viewpoint was challenged and changed by one of them: “How integrated are you at the Y.W.C.A.?” After our honest reply, his next remark, “I don’t think that you are much more integrated than I am,” needled us into action.

We then undertook to see our own faults. They were many, so we started to face up to the areas in which we were not open freely to all women and girls or were integrated in words only. Here was much to be accomplished as we sought to clean our own house; and as we did so we gained insight into the internal problems we were asking business leaders to face in their establishments.”

In 1965, Caldwell became the executive director of the Central YWCA in Asheville: the first African-American in the South to hold the position. However, it was not until 1970 that the two branches of the Asheville YWCA were integrated into one building at the Phyllis Wheatley’s 185 South French Broad location.

Next week, we will look at the cost of urban renewal on Asheville’s communities.

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