Historic YWCA

The Black YMCA and YWCA
Sunday, Feb. 18, 2-4 p.m.
Wally Choice Community Center
Screening of “A Place to Become: Montclair Through the Eyes of the Glenridge Avenue YWCA Women (1920-1965)”
Discussion to follow.
49 Maple Ave.

For Montclair Local

“When African Americans came to the north during the Great Migration, the Y was where many people ended up,” said Elaine Spears-Atkins, director of program services for the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation public education committee.

The Great Migration is a term for the period that starts  after the turn of the 20th century until approximately 1960, when African-Americans moved from the rural South to the Northern and Western parts of the United States.

MAAHF and the Montclair History Center are presenting the exhibit “Black YMCA and YWCA” at the Wally Choice Community Center, 49 Maple Ave., on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 2 p.m. Admission is free.

The exhibit will include archival photos of residents of both the YMCA and YWCA,  and a screening of “A Place to Become: Montclair Through the Eyes of the Glenridge Avenue YWCA Women (1920-1965).” The screening will be followed by a discussion led by Jane Eliasof, executive director of the Montclair History Center.

“A Place to Become,” by Allison Bonner Shillingford, is a combination of  documentary and the oral storytelling tradition. It tells the story of eight African-American women coming of age during the time of segregation through integration in Montclair.

Historic YWCA
The “founding mothers,” the earliest picture in the archives of the women at the YWCA in its new home at 159 Glenridge Ave. COURTESY MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY YWCA ARCHIVE COLLECTION.

This exhibit is the first in MAAHF’s “Black Voices,” a series of educational programming celebrating the contributions of African Americans in the township of Montclair. Upcoming programming please are on the MAAHF website, maahf.org.

MAAHF  was originally founded in 2004 to put on the annual African American parade in June, according to Spears-Atkins, but the organization began to expand beyond just a parade. The foundation gives scholarships, hosts education programs, and curates cultural exhibits.

Longtime Montclair resident and active member of the African-American cultural community Nicole Gray said in an email, “The MAAHF is important, because African American heritage is a treasure trove of preserved traditions — hard won and under assault at this political moment. That is even more true in Montclair where African-American heritage is not only historical, but constantly in the making. Our strength lies in our heritage, in our traditions, and in our pride in these traditions.”

The idea for the “Black YMCA and YWCA” event was conceived by MAAHF. Spears-Atkins said,  “[Black] history is not taught to our children in the classroom, and because it is not taught they don’t know where we have been and all the things that we have accomplished.

Spears-Atkins continued, “We want our children to take pride in who they are.”

The Montclair History Center website states that the Black YWCA in Montclair was founded in 1920 and housed in the Crane House. The Crane house was built in 1796 by one of Montclair’s founders, Israel Crane.

While MAAHF would like  the “Black YMCA and YWCA”  to be part of the Montclair School District curriculum, Spears said that for now, “The youngsters can go to the Crane House, which is the Y and have a visual of what their forefathers and foremothers did when they came here after the Great Migration.”

Montclair and black history

Africans Americans came to Montclair during the Great Migration, but the history of African Americans in Montclair goes back further than the turn of the 20th century. The National Park Service, US Department of Interior has recorded enslaved African people being brought to what is now New Jersey by Dutch in the 17th century. According to the New Jersey’s Historical Society’s 1918 book “New Jersey History” the founder of Montclair, Israel Crane born in 1744  had at least one slave a woman named Dine.

And the James Howe house on Claremont Avenue, owned by freed slave James Howe, who was formerly owned by Major Nathaniel Crane, was declared a historic landmark by the town in 2008.In addition, New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery. And a 2007 PBS Newshour interview reports that the last 16 slaves in New Jersey were freed in 1865 (though slavery had been outlawed in 1846).

Historic YWCA.
Dance lessons in the YWCA program in the old Recreation Building (torn down in 1965). COURTESY MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY YWCA ARCHIVE COLLECTION.

The documentary “A Place to Become” shows that from the 1920s through the 1960s the YWCA in Montclair was home to middle class African-American society. According to Stacy Patton’s NY Times essay “Hidden Montclair” Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington lectured there. Black women from Montclair State University who were barred from living on campus owing to their race lived for a time in its upper attic and some of those women are in the archival photos at the exhibit.

Spears-Atkins stated  that this event is for all ages: “We found that many adults don’t know the history of the Crane House and have never been in the Crane House. Adults who were around during the time that people were still living at the Y.”

After slavery and the Great Migration, many African Americans lost touch with their families, as referenced in the 2012 book “Help Me to Find My People” by Heather Andrea Williams. In starting  new lives in the Northern and Western parts of the country, many people lost touch with family members. The archival photos might help in reconnecting people with lost relatives.

“We also want people to look at the photos and see if they can identify any of the people in the photos,” Spears-Atkins said.

While this is a temporary exhibit,  the history of the Black YWCA is permanently on view at the Montclair History Center’s Crane House.

Montclair History Center Executive Director Jane Eliasof said in an email,  “In 2014, the Montclair History Center permanently reinterpreted two of the rooms and the central hall to tell the story of the women and girls who lived, worked, and played at the YWCA when it was located in the former home of the Crane family.”

For Gray, “The ‘Black YMCA and YWCA’  exhibit is not just about the history of Montclair, but a blueprint for the future of Montclair. A Montclair that embraces and celebrates all of its inhabitants regardless of gender or race.”