Helen Claytor Biography
A staunch advocate of racial equality and a life long supporter of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), Helen Claytor spent her career working tirelessly and courageously to ensure minority rights. The first black president of the National YWCA, she dedicated her talents to the organization and to the cause of betterment for all. Also active in the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, her pioneering role paved the way for hundreds of women.
The third of four daughters, Helen was born in Minneapolis in 1907, where her father, a Pullman porter from Ohio, and her mother had decided to raise their family. The young couple had met during one of his train runs, when Helen's mother, a woman from Virginia, was on her way to Pierre, South Dakota, where she was going to teach cooking. In an interview with Mary Mead Fuger reprinted in Grand River Valley History, Helen elaborated, "My father, as he was running on the road, was also reading law in a lawyer's office. It was back in the days when you could pass the bar if you knew enough law, and he was the first black man to pass the bar in South Dakota."
Hoping early on that their children would attend college, Helen's enterprising parents wanted to live near a university, hoping to save on room and board when the time came for their daughters to enroll. They built a home near the University of Minnesota campus, though local whites unsuccessfully tried to buy them out. As Claytor related to the Grand Rapids Free Press, though the offers became extravagant, her father finally told the eager buyers, "you're wasting your time. There is no amount of money you can offer because my principles are not for sale." Those principles and her parents' push towards education gave Helen what she believed was something better than a silver spoon.
Claytor's involvement with the YWCA (or "Y" in popular vernacular) began in the seventh grade, when she joined the YWCA Girl Reserves. She would remain active with the group throughout high school and college. As hoped for, Claytor attended the University of Minnesota, graduating cum laude in 1928 as vale-dictorian of her class and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She had hoped to enter the teaching profession but was faced with the fact that teaching jobs for blacks were nonexistent—even for someone with her credentials. Most blacks in her position looked for employment in the South, but Claytor instead turned her thoughts to the YWCA, already a big influence on her life.
Claytor was directed to the Trenton, New Jersey, branch of the Y, which at the time was racially segregated. Having a main community YWCA for whites and a branch located a few blocks away for blacks was not uncommon. As Claytor explained to Fuger in Grand River Valley History, "Back then they had a lot of black branches of the YWCA. There [was] only one YWCA in a community, and anything else [was] a branch." Two years later, having fulfilled the promise she had made to her mother that she would work for a time before marrying, Helen married Earl Wilkins. The brother of former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive director Roy Wilkins, Earl had been a college classmate of Claytor's and was working as a journalist in Kansas City, Missouri. Claytor spent the next ten years with her husband in Missouri. After Wilkins died of tuberculosis in the late 1930s, Helen resumed her activities with the YWCA, choosing to remain in Kansas City with the couple's son.
The work she did there brought her to the attention of the National YWCA board in New York City, which offered her the position of secretary of interracial education. Upon accepting, Claytor joined a team whose responsibilities included traveling to other Ys, lending technical assistance and studying interracial practices that would eventually lead to desegregation within the organization.
Traveling to Michigan on behalf of the National YWCA, she met her second husband, Dr. Robert Claytor, the first black physician in Grand Rapids and a member of board of the local Community Chest (the United Way precursor). The two met during a meeting of local leaders. According to former Grand Rapids YWCA board president Marilyn Martin in the YWCA Focus, Claytor had been asked to address the Michigan "State Public Affairs Committee of the YWCA, regarding the organization's role in the [Second World] war effort." Amongst local leaders gathered to hear her speak that evening was Dr. Claytor, who later took her to dinner and escorted her back to the train station. What Helen would later describe as "love at first sight" in the YWCA Focus, resulted in marriage one year later, in 1943.
The Claytors early years in Grand Rapids were marred by racial incidents, including housing discrimination. Realtors would show the new couple small, houses unsuitable for their "extended" family. Such occurrences brought back to Helen memories of what her father had encountered in Minnesota. The discrimination was obvious and very frustrating for the Claytors, especially when they believed they had a house one day only to be told the next that it had been sold to other buyers. As word quickly spread that the prospective buyers were blacks, neighbors and realtors banded together to protest the Claytor's eventual purchase of a home on the northeast side of town. Little did the protesters know that the house would become a permanent residence for the family.
Discrimination came from other quarters of the city as well. Martin recounted that the Kent County Medical Auxiliary and the American Association of University Women did not invite Helen to join, although she met all the criteria for membership—except, apparently, skin color. When she joined the League of Women Voters, the group was politely asked to find a new home, and thus relocated from the Women's City Club to the more "race-friendly" Grand Rapids Public Museum. Not until many years later was Claytor admitted to both the Medical Auxiliary and the Women's City Club. Meanwhile, Claytor had resigned her position with the National YWCA and had begun volunteering at the Grand Rapids branch. Martin noted in the YWCA Focus that Claytor was initially unaware that relations between the Grand Rapids YWCA and the black community were poor. Practices such as barring black children from the swimming pool and segregated classes were the rule of the day.
The struggle for equal treatment continued, when, in 1949, Claytor was nominated to the YWCA's highest position—president of the board. The initial impact on the community was negative; the idea of a black in such a position was theretofore unheard of, creating, in Claytor's own words, "a lot of fuss." Pressure to withdraw from the race mounted, culminating in the resignation of three members of the board of directors. Claytor found it difficult to have the same group of women perfectly willing to serve with her on the board, but unwilling to have her preside over them as their board president. "They were perfectly willing to be on the board with me, but they thought it would be disastrous to have a black person as president," she assessed in the Grand River Valley History.
Fortunately support came from two key figures: treasurer Gertrude Skipper, who firmly stated her intentions to remain in place, and Tirzah McCandless, the candidate nominated to replace Claytor. At first McCandless did not know of the circumstances surrounding her own nomination, but according to Martin in the YWCA Focus, "When Tirzah learned the truth, she withdrew her name and renominated Helen, who was then elected the first Negro YWCA president in the United States. It was a sweet victory." Claytor clarified in the Grand River Valley History, "It was the first time anyplace in the country that a black woman had been elected president of a community [as opposed to a branch] YWCA."
After proving her talents as president of the Grand Rapids YWCA, Claytor assumed the presidency of the National YWCA Board of Directors in 1967. Once again she was the first black woman in history to hold the post. That year she was also selected for a second stint with the YWCA World Council, having previously served from 1946 to 1952. One of the biggest highlights of Claytor's career occurred in 1970, during the first YWCA national convention over which she presided. There she witnessed the results of the study of interracial practices with which she had assisted for many years come into fruition. The justice and equality imperative, specifically "the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary" was adopted and became a tenet of all YWCAs.
At that point, having filled a variety of roles during her long involvement with the YWCA, many in leadership capacities, including vice president at large and chair of the central region, Claytor contemplated retiring from the national board in 1970, only to find herself nominated and elected to a second three-year term as national board president. Claytor finally resigned from the National YWCA's board of directors in 1974, but retirement did not slow Claytor down, prompting her mother to comment, as Claytor fondly related to Fuger, that Helen was into "everything except the fire department." Claytor went on to serve on the National Women's Advisory Committee for Civil Rights and the National Office of Equal Opportunity and continued to be active in such groups as the NAACP and the Urban League.
A longtime volunteer at the St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Claytor also maintained her involvement in local human rights issues. She clearly remembered the resistance faced by Grand Rapids mayor Paul Goebel as he was appointing a committee to study whether the establishment of a Human Relations Commission was warranted. Quite a few people felt the need for such a committee was nonexistent, but Claytor and a group nicknamed "the girls" persisted. In the Grand River Valley History, Claytor revealed to Fuger that "the thing I am proudest of, for the service that I've done in Grand Rapids, is that I was one of the people who helped to found what we called then the Human Relations Commission, but which is now the Equal Opportunity Office (EOO)." The EOO brought to light existing discrimination in such areas as housing and employment and exposed other gaps in living conditions in the community. The City of Grand Rapids honored Claytor's civic contributions by creating the Helen Jackson Claytor Civil Rights Award.
Throughout the years, Claytor received much recognition for her involvement and contribution in public service. In 1968, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities by Eastern Michigan University and in the same year received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota. In 1983 the Grand Rapids YWCA held a special tribute for her, establishing the Helen J. Claytor Merit of Distinction—a biannual award given to volunteers who have made valuable service contributions to the YWCA organization—and making her the first recipient. Nationally recognized civil rights activist Dorothy Height was the keynote speaker at the well-attended event. And in 1994, Claytor, along with civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, was named a "Woman of Courage" by the Michigan Women's Foundation. The ceremony's co-chair was quoted by the Grand Rapids Free Press as saying, "the women we are honoring have served as an inspiration to generations of women, not only in Michigan, but throughout the nation and the world. Through their perseverance and dedication, they have made a real difference in promoting equality for individuals regardless of gender or race."
Upon her retirement from the national YWCA Board of Directors, Helen set forth the philosophy that guided her throughout her life and so enriched the lives of others. In her farewell address she declared: "I have done what I could all my life for the cause of human dignity, multiplying my efforts by those of all the members of this organization, who, motivated by the barrier-breaking love of God, have kept on a road they cannot and would not get off. This has helped me keep my equilibrium—kept me from falling into despair or depression, knowing that, if my faith has validity, the quality of life for which the YWCA struggles must ultimately succeed. It also seems to me that despite the multiplicity of ills still besetting the world, more and more people are aware of them and are willing to commit their lives to healing them, and I know that I must stay in the number." Indeed she did, remaining active in her church and community until her death. Coretta Scott King described Claytor's career as an "eloquent testament to the great things an individual can accomplish," according to the African American Registry. Claytor died at the age of 98 on May 10, 2005, in her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Grand Rapids Free Press, April, 1994, p. B3.
Grand Rapids Press, May 11, 2005, p. A1.
Grand River Valley History, 1995, pp. 14-18.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 12, 2005, p. B8.
Washington Post, May 14, 2005, p. B14.
YWCA Focus (Grand Rapids), Winter, 1993, p. 1; Spring, 1996, pp. 1-2.
"Helen Claytor, a YWCA Original …," African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2739/Helen_Claytor_a_YWCA_original (June 6, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through YWCA-Grand Rapids press releases dated 1983 and January 28, 1985; the Helen J. Claytor Merit of Distinction Award Dinner program, April 22, 1983; and the Michigan Women's Foundation Award program, 1994.
—Doris H. Mabunda and
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