In 1942, America was engrossed in World War II. Memphis was doing its part with the opening of the Army Depot, which supplied the U.S. Army with food, clothing, and equipment, and even housed prisoners of war. Aretha Franklin and Carla Thomas were born. Memphis had a baseball team, the Red Sox, part of the Negro American League. Beale Street was booming and Hamilton was still a junior high school.
It also was the year of the opening of the “Negro Branch” of the YWCA.
The YWCA organized in Memphis in 1919, and from its beginning supported civil rights and racial justice. In its early days, the YWCA was one of the few places in Memphis where members of the black and white communities could gather to discuss common goals. Local segregation laws limited integrated meetings to three venues, LeMoyne College, the Unitarian Church and the YWCA.
In the 1930s, YWCA members invited black women to their on-going public affairs forums. In 1940, Ethel Niermeyer, Executive Director of the YWCA, appointed a city-wide interracial committee, consisting of 4 white women and 4 black women, to study the possibility of expanding activities to African American women and girls. They received input from the five southern cities which had “Negro branches”. Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas and Richmond, Virginia.
At that time, Negro branches, as they were called, were organized and sponsored by the whites only branch. This was considered progressive at the time, as it was not until 1965 that the first association was chartered by black women, that had not been previously affiliated with a white branch.
The Negro branch opened at 462 Vance, comprised of 33 women, led by Etta Bonner, Helen Hayes, Mable Gooden and Jennie Brodnax. Branch members got busy right away. Housewives met to make bandages for the Red Cross and provide assistance for Negro soldiers. Also Girls Reserves clubs opened at Booker T Washington High School, Foote Homes, Douglas Community Center and Manassas High School, with 128 girls.
The Vance Avenue Branch was a center of many activities in the black community in the 1940s and 1950s. Activities included luncheons, teas, sewing, and typing classes and a choir. The branch also hosted chaperoned dances for teens.
High profile challenges to separate but equal escalated after the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education ruling. Mary Frances Lacey, a Mississippi native and Executive Secretary of the Memphis YWCA proposed that the number of “Negro” days at the zoo be increased from one to two and that days when the races could attend together be designated. This was a radical stance for a white woman to advocate in 1958.
The city council rejected this proposal, and she had to leave her home due to threats from individuals opposed to her views on integration. In 1964, YWCA members were instrumental in forming the interracial, 12 member Saturday Lunch Club to integrate Memphis restaurants.
The YWCA sponsored trips for the Y-Teens to provide learning opportunities through travel. The young ladies went to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New Orleans. They also went camping at Camp Miramichee in Hardy, Arkansas.
By 1961, the Vance building was insufficient for the branch’s needs and Sarah Brown, a long-time member, facilitated the purchase of land at 1044 Mississippi, for what we know today as the Sarah Brown branch.
Most day to day activities such as dances, classes, and Y-Teens, were separated along racial lines. By the late 1960s, members began attending programs at both the branch and central office, thereby expanding opportunities for the ladies to interact and get to know one another, and the branches merged in the early 1970s. Mrs. Addie Owens became the first black woman to serve as Executive Director of the Memphis branch.
The Greater Memphis YWCA is celebrating its centennial this year, and the Sarah Brown branch has been an integral part of that history. The Sarah Brown Branch remains an anchor of the South Memphis community. It houses the employment and training center and offers GED tutoring, computer classes and community meeting spaces.
The 22nd Annual Benefit Luncheon will be held March 20 at the Holiday Inn – University of Memphis at noon. The history of the Sarah Brown branch will be highlighted, including an exhibit of vintage photographs.