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Helen J. Claytor was born on this date in 1907. She was a Black educator, YWCA administrator, and activist.
Born Helen Jackson, she was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father was a Pullman Porter and had read law while traveling all over the country on the trains where worked. The elder Jackson was admitted to law practice in South Dakota, yet decided to settle his family in Minneapolis. He felt that Minneapolis was the best place for his children to receive a good education while still living at home. Young Claytor became involved with the YWCA as a member of the Girl Reserves. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in 1928, she discovered the harsh reality of a lack of jobs for Black teachers in Minnesota.
She took a job with the Trenton New Jersey YWCA and two years later a similar position with a Black YWCA in Kansas City. After the death of her first husband Earl Wilkins (brother of civil rights leader Roy Wilkins), Claytor worked with the National YWCA as Secretary of Interracial Education. She was invited to speak at a Michigan YWCA meeting in Grand Rapids in 1942, where she met her second husband, Dr. Robert Claytor. She moved to Grand Rapids a year later, after completing a nation-wide study on interracial relations for the National YWCA board of directors.
When she resigned her national YWCA post, joined the Grand Rapids YWCA board and became president in 1949, three white board members resigned in protest, saying the city was not ready for a Black president. In the early 1950s, she led the Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to look at race relations in the city. In the early 1960s, she led a study on de facto segregation in Grand Rapids Public Schools, making recommendations on integrating them. The elimination of racism was a key goal of Claytor's tenure as president of the national YWCA, and one of her proudest achievements was to get the organization behind that operating principle at the 1970 convention.
With the YWCA, Claytor focused on race relations because "it was just part of my blood and bones," she told the Grand Rapids Press in 1995. She told the newspaper in 1997: "God made us diverse, and we have to live in harmony." In 2000, Claytor was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. In 2003, Coretta Scott King, speaking at a Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission dinner, saluted Claytor, saying she was an "eloquent testament to the great things an individual can accomplish." Helen Claytor the first African American woman to head the YWCA's national board of directors died on May 10, 2005.