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Fri, 07.07.1905

The Harlem YWCA is Founded

The Harlem YWCA

*The Harlem YWCA in New York City was founded on July 7, 1905.  The community's founders were well connected to the networks of religious and practical organizations developed in Harlem, significantly as the number of Black citizens increased. During the Great Migration, this YWCA was essential in developing training and careers for young Black women in the early and mid-twentieth century and providing safe and respectable accommodation. They combined the social traditions of clubs and religion to benefit the community.

The objective of the Harlem YWCA was to provide Christian family surroundings that supported the material and spiritual needs of young women so that they could advance their careers and place in society. It thus became a center for community activism as well as religious outreach. It had its motto, The More Abundant Life.

The foundation and development of the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association was led by Cecelia Cabaniss Saunders, Emma Ransom, and Virginia Scott, among others. Saunders was the executive director from 1914 until 1947. The Harlem branch's development reflected the tensions and changes in American society between white and Black citizens. Indeed, the YWCA movement was formally segregated by skin color until 1945, and the leaders of the Harlem YWCA led demands for the independence of YWCAs for Black women from supervision by YWCAs for White women. This resulted in changes in the official organizational rules in 1946 to give self-governance to the YWCAs for Black women.     

Premises and activities      

The Harlem organization initially rented premises and mainly provided bible study and a Sunday evening religious service. However, the founders also responded to the demand and obvious need for secular support. In 1921, it re-opened in a purpose-built building at 137th Street and Lenox Avenue after occupying rented premises. This building, funded by the Rockefellers, set a high standard for the YWCA. The building had a large cafeteria in the basement. The ground and first floors had an information desk, offices, reception, meeting, and teaching rooms.

On the higher floors was a gymnasium with showers, a locker room, and a laundry. There was a swimming pool on the fourth floor. An adjacent building provided the accommodation rooms for residents. By 1926, the Emma Ransom House could accommodate over 200 women, including a roof garden with lighting. There needed to be more tension between the rules, well-meaning supervision for residents, and their wish for an independent life. Later, an annex, more classrooms, and a trade school were developed. Over 3000 students were enrolled by 1943. By 1947, the Harlem YWCA employed over a hundred people.

The Harlem YWCA provided training in domestic work in areas such as cooking and sewing and taught me how to balance the need to work with a successful home life. These skills made the women more competitive in the job market. In 1923, Emma Shields Penn was employed to lead the trade school in expanding the range of training. She had been employed previously at the U. S. Department of Labor. She expanded her training into business skills such as shorthand, dictation, bookkeeping, business English, a beauty school, and more domestic service skills.

Madame C. J. Walker was a member of the Harlem YWCA's management committee until her death, and her success through her beauty products company provided an example of a very successful woman. There was also a cultural course program, with the content changing depending on their popularity and the availability of lecturers. It later expanded into nursing studies, offering a formal state qualification, including practical hospital placements from around 1939. The Harlem YWCA also opened an employment bureau in the mid-1930s, and members of the organization's committee began to promote better employment conditions, particularly for domestic staff.

These employment-related activities were led by the then membership secretary, Anna Arnold Hedgeman (who resigned in 1933). She also expanded the series of career and inspirational lectures and was able to book women such as Mary Church Terrell, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Maggie L. Walker. The accommodation was a cheap, safe, and respectable place for young Black women to stay temporarily in New York. This was particularly important in the earlier years of the Harlem YWCA. Among people known to have lived there was Leontyne Price in 1948 while attending the Juilliard School.

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