Tuesday History: YWCA’s 75th anniversary celebration

CELEBRATING 75 YEARS: On April 14, 1981, Thelma Caldwell addressed members at the 75th anniversary of Asheville's YWCA. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville's Special Collections

In a speech made at the YWCA’s annual meeting on April 14, 1981, former executive director Thelma Caldwell summarized the history and achievements of the local chapter. It is not known if the transcription (available at D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections at UNC Asheville) is Caldwell’s exact remarks or an overview of her prepared talk. Caldwell, an African American, played a crucial role in the integration of the Asheville YWCA’s local divisions, as well as the city as a whole.

“Tonight we have come together to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the YWCA of Asheville, N.C. This birthday calls for a special celebration — a time of ingathering of the family, its members, participants, staff and friends. The birthday of an organization like the YWCA is a time at which we measure not only our growth and progress, but it is a time of thanksgiving for our loyal friends and supporters who stood tall and kept the faith for the past 75 years. It is impossible to tell the accomplishments or even begin to give highlights for 75 years, but I will try! Just existing for 75 years is a record in itself.

So, for roughly half a century, two YWCAs operated in Asheville, operating the program that is the YWCA. And during all these years parallel programs were operating in our city. There were two buildings, two boards … two membership lists, two budgets, two sets of committees, two sets of classes — sewing, art, millinery, cake decorating, typing, knitting, crochet, First Aid, swimming for all ages. … There were two summer day camps, two annual meetings. There were two Business Girls Clubs, two YW Wives Clubs. There were two programs for Teens and Teen Wives.

DINNER IS SERVED: Thelma Caldwell (back left), eats among members of the YWCA during its 75th anniversary celebration. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville's Special Collections
DINNER IS SERVED: Thelma Caldwell (back left), eats among members of the YWCA during its 75th anniversary celebration. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville’s Special Collections

This leads us to the sixties and to my time here — the time I naturally know best. Let me quickly run through some things that have happened in the last 20 years to bring us to where we find ourselves today.

There were the times of violence and unrest in the black communities of our country, with sit-ins, lock-ins, etc.; times when other minorities — both ethnic and women, became convinced that they, too, had the potential to better their lot in life. These were the times that the National YWCA moved ever more assertively to help these groups realize their dreams. And the YWCA at all levels was asked to first examine itself — to recognize the racism within our own structure — two wage scales, tracking of minority women into traditional “domestic or clerical roles,” timing our meetings, etc. Asheville had already made a few motions. They had actually had an interracial dinner in 1946! A black woman was elected to the Board of Directors in 1954. One committee — Public Affairs — was a joint Central-Branch Committee. And then — I was hired as Executive Director.

We were under a National Convention Mandate to move with all deliberate speed to rid our local association of the wasteful method of operation forced on us by segregated programming and to help our community prepare for the changes that were to come. So our YWCA began to work intentionally to bring black and white women together on a more equal basis.

And these were the times when we began to move toward one association — with one membership list. When a decision was made to merge the Board with the Committee on Administration and begin to meet at night in order to make it possible for working women (many of them black) to attend. These were the times when there became one program of classes — some held here, some at Central. It was even the time of budget — a true milestone. These were the times when our Board and Trustees decided to sell the Grove Street Building and move all programs here. And we all stood firm when the outcry from the community said, ‘Keep our white Y.’

Changes piled one upon another — our Association always seemed to be ahead of the times with programs like these, many of which grew out of our Challenge to Integration Workshops where needs were identified.

Well, my time is nearly up, and I have only hit the high spots. And, I have barely mentioned the very most important part of the YW. It’s great to think about buildings that have come and gone; but, — without people — mostly women — very special women, there would never have been a YWCA — there could not be one today. … Let us cheer for them. Let us thank God for them and all the others who remain nameless tonight.

Happy Birthday to us!”

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