YWCA Our Voice

Learning from our past mistakes

As an organization that aims to eliminate racism, it can be difficult to hear stories of racial segregation that are a part of the YWCA Northcentral PA’s history. Instead of censoring the past, we look back and learn lessons from the mistakes of the individuals before us.

In 1916, an unnamed white school girl invited her friends Marion and Laura Hughes to attend her Girl Scout meeting at the YWCA. However when the girls arrived, someone told the sisters to wait outside because they were African Americans.

Mary Birch, the YWCA’s physical director, was heartbroken by the girls’ experience. Birch said if the girls rallied enough of their friends, a black Girl Scout troop could form and use the YWCA’s facilities weekly.

It didn’t take long before the sisters’ mother found herself as the troop leader of Williamsport’s 20 new Girl Scouts.

For about two years, the Hughes sisters’ troop met at the YWCA like Birch had promised. They made crafts and played sports but were not allowed to use the pool. Segregation also forbade them from changing in the locker rooms so the girls wore their gym clothes under their dresses.

Eventually, Mrs. Hughes and her Girl Scouts agreed that they needed a place of their own where they could do as they pleased.

In early 1919 the men of the Temple Association of Colored Fraternal Lodges purchased two buildings at 429 Walnut St. and rented them to the women for $25 a month. This became the Walnut Street Branch of the YWCA.

The new branch provided dozens of educational and recreational opportunities for young black girls in Williamsport. The most popular clubs were the Glee Club, which performed gospel and spiritual music throughout the city, and the Swing Club, which incorporated dancing into their performances.

The YWCA paid the utilities for the Walnut Street Branch until autumn 1930 when funds ceased after the stock market crash. The branch was now on its own financially.

With its future uncertain, members of the organization decided to keep the branch open but agreed it was time for a new name.

With compassion and foresight, the group believed the community center should be named after both a man and a woman — Mary McLeod Bethune, a famous educator, and Fredrick Douglass, a statesmen and abolitionist. They placed Bethune’s name first as homage to the YWCA.

Today the building is home to Firetree Place, which runs after school and summer programs for children.

In 1946 the national YWCA prohibited segregation at local agencies, eight years before the US Supreme Court’s decision to ban segregation.

With over a century separating us from Marion and Laura Hughes, it’s frustrating to look back. The YWCA could have integrated in 1916. Separate never was equal, no matter how pure Mary Birch’s intentions.

Segregation is a stain on our history yet we are proud of Birch who did the best she could in the political climate of her day.

Today we take her spirit and our willingness to learn from past mistakes to move forward toward inclusivity of all people.

Bloom is a communications associate at the YWCA, 815 W. Fourth St. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in the Lifestyle section.

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