The YWCA in the 1940s.

By Jaimie Julia Winters

Montclair’s Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association were both founded by leaders in the African American community to foster character, physical health and intellect. In the early 1900s, as African Americans sought out domestic jobs in Montclair, the Ys offered them support and camaraderie, and sometimes a place to stay until settled.

Alice Hooe

In the early 1900s, about 50 YWCAs existed for African American women and girls, all of them offshoots of white chapters except one — the YWCA of Montclair-North Essex in Montclair, founded by Alice Hooe Foster, the first African American alumna of Montclair High School.

The Hooe family migrated to Montclair from Virgina in 1874. The father, Charles Hooe, was a gardener and his three sons born in Virginia helped him grow the business. After renting homes for a few years, the family bought a home on Maple Place where they lived with their 10 children. The neighborhood was mixed with Italians, Scottish and Swedish, said Betty Holloway, resident, former teacher, educational consultant, historian and archivist at St. Mark’s Church on Elm Street.

When the Hooes first moved to Montclair the overall population was 5,147, with the African American population at about 180. By 1885, it was 280 and by the 1900s the African American population had tripled as families took advantage of finding domestic work in the large estates, said Holloway.

But the Hooe family had bigger dreams. As her family acquired property and moved into the news store business, she was the first African American to graduate from Montclair High School in 1894. She went on to graduate from Howard University and taught in Marshallville, Ga., for two years before returning to Montclair to help with the new family business, a newspaper store at 449 Bloomfield Ave. They were the first to offer home newspaper delivery.

“The entire family worked at the store,” said Holloway.

The YWCA trained young women and also gave lodging to those new to the area.

The family was an energetic group of entrepreneurs. The father also had a carpet laying business, and Alice and her sister Grace owned a building with retail and six residences at 415 Bloomfield Ave., said Holloway. Grace Hooe was a bookkeeper most of her life.
In 1911, Alice Hooe married Walter Howard Foster whom she met at St. Mark’s Church.

Walter was an insurance salesman. Alice was active in her community and seeing the need for the growing population of African American women to be trained and supported, she founded the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1912. The women and young girls received training in childcare, nursing and dress making, said Holloway.

They soon outgrew the first location at 89 Forest St. The Crane House was bought by the YWCA of Montclair-North Essex to be used as the headquarters in 1920.

Although a group of white women did assist in financing and incorporating the Montclair’s Y, it was the only one in America not affiliated with a white YWCA, according to the Montclair History Center.

Alice Hooe served on many committees including the Female Stars, the black men’s YMCA committee, the NAACP and the Women’s Educational Club and the Inter-Racial Committee, whose purpose was to foster a better understanding between the races. She was part of a group that sponsored a program with Prof. Alain Locke, who was credited with the Harlem Renaissance and was the first black Rhodes Scholar.

“She wanted others to understand there were different classes of African Americans than just servants,” said Holloway.

The YWCA was used for offices, dormitories and as a social center for African American women until 1965.

It became a safe, respectable place for domestic servants to stay when they arrived in Montclair looking for work and a civic and social hub for African American women. Says Carrie Allen McCray in her book, “Freedom’s Child,” “When we were young, the colored YWCA was located in a wonderful old house known as the Crane house. We knew every nook and cranny of that old house, which wrapped itself around us like a comforting blanket.”

Alice Hooe, who never had children, retired as director in 1937 but continued to work part time at the Y until her death in 1940.

The Montclair YMCA was formed out of St. Mark’s Church, which wanted to provide young black men with character, physical health and intellect, according to Frank Godlewski, who saved a collection of YMCA photographs from being thrown away when the YMCA was being razed to make way for a school. The church was the first to offer the first Bible study and Bible Vacation School for young African Americans.

The YMCA in the 1890s.

At the same time, Charles Harmon Bullock, a prominent leader in the early 20th Century Colored Young Men’s Christian Association movement, was creating YMCAs throughout the U.S and would later serve as director of the colored Y in Montclair from 1916 until his retirement in 1935.

He was born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1875, the son of former slaves Burkley and Mary Washington Bullock. Charles Bullock graduated as salutorian of his class at Jefferson Normal School in 1892 and went on to became a teacher in the segregated Charlottesville public schools while working as a correspondent for The Daily Progress, a local African American newspaper. In 1890 the national office of the YMCA created segregated YMCAs across the U.S.

“The national office envisioned these facilities as providing temporary housing, lending libraries, swimming pools and gyms for black men along with spiritual and educational training,” according to Blackpast.org.

Charles Bullock.

“In an era when black public school facilities were often inadequate and cultural and civic facilities non-existent, these colored YMCAs provided additional educational and cultural outlets in racially-segregated communities throughout the country. Although endorsing segregated YMCAs in the North was often controversial with many civil rights groups, Bullock and others supported segregation, which brought a degree of autonomy that many in the African American community welcomed,” according to Blackpast.

As conditions in the South became less tolerant for African Americans, they moved north to seek work and Montclair had opportunities for house workers. The YMCA offered housing and support in their new environment, said Godlewski.

After organizing and managing YMCAs, in Charlottesville, Brooklyn and Louisville, in 1916, Bullock was transferred to Montclair where he served as director.

“Among the national and internationally known leaders who have appeared as guest speakers at the YMCA to work with African-American men and boys in Montclair [have] been Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute; Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, president of Howard University; Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College; and Jackie Robinson, first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues,” said Godlewski.

Under Bullock’s leadership the Montclair colored branch erected another modern building, which became known as the Washington Street Branch YMCA, at a cost of $175,000.
Charles Harmon Bullock died in Montclair on May 9, 1950.

In 2004, the YMCA was demolished to make way for a school named the Charles Harmon Bullock School.

Jaimie is an award-winning journalist and editor having been employed at New York regional area weeklies, dailies, magazines and digital news sites including The Ridgewood News, Community News, South Bergenite,...