The untold history of women at Montclair’s historic YWCA
The Crane House, historic location of the Young Women’s Christian Association, holds many stories.
The building, located at 110 Orange Road, stood through slavery, the start of the American entrepreneurship, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era. It’s now the home of the Montclair History Center.
But some of its stories are largely forgotten — including those of many of the women who lived in the house. The Montclair History Center is working to rediscover the details of their lives, and share them through its Women of the House tour series, which continues in May.
“We wanted to amplify their voices because very often women’s history is not told or you don’t hear it as much,” Jane Eliasof, Montclair History Center executive director, said.
It’s more common to hear about the men who settled or developed the country, but stories of people “beyond the white founding fathers” deserve to be told as well, she said.
Eliasof said instead of focusing on the broader story of the house, which the center does every day of the year, a recent Women of the House tour focused on the story of Dine, one of the enslaved housekeepers owned by the Crane family. It also focused on Fanny Crane, who helped her husband, Israel Crane, build the home in 1796.
“We know little about [Fanny Crane] other than some anecdotes that have been passed down,” Eliasof said. “We talk about the Irish servants and share some of their stories. [They were] domestic servants for the next generation of Cranes that lived there, including Phoebe, who was Israel Crane’s daughter-in-law, and we tell her story.”
Eliasof said the history of the YWCA — which purchased the home as its headquarters in 1920, and stayed there until moving to a new building in 1965 (the same year the Crane House itself was relocated from Glenridge Avenue to Orange Road) — and some of the boarders who lived there, is also amplified during the tour. For example, there’s the story of Lucille Barnswell, who moved from Fish Pond, South Carolina, and lived in the YWCA for years. There are also the stories of Alice Hooe Foster and Hortense Ridley Tate.
“Those are two women that I think changed history,” Eliasof said. “We didn’t have to do a lot of research on them.”
Foster was the first African American to graduate from Montclair High School, in 1894. She started the YWCA in her own home in 1912 before moving it to the Crane House in 1920. She had a tremendous impact on the lives of Black women and girls who lived in Montclair, Eliasof said. She said the YWCA Foster founded was the only one not affiliated with a white YWCA counterpart, and provided a safe place for Black women who moved from the South looking for a job. She said classes were also taught at the YWCA, like secretary skills and knitting.
Hortense Ridley Tate moved from Topeka, Kansas, and was hired at the YWCA when she was 21 years old. She worked for several years until she got married and became a schoolteacher. Eliasof said Tate was a guiding light and mentor for many women in Montclair. She lived to be 104 years old; she died in 2003.
“And then we end up by talking about some of the people who were members of the YWCA. We look at women and the role of women and why we don’t know many of the women’s stories throughout a period that spans from 1796 all the way to 1965,” Eliasof said.
She said finding the stories of the women required a lot of digging, trying to come up with a coherent account of each. She said that some of the women didn’t have any record at all. For example, for Dine, the enslaved Crane family housekeeper, the only hard record Eliasof could find was for the date and price of her purchase.
And for Fanny Crane, Eliasof said, the only record the center has is of her birth date, which she said is unusual. The center has a book she owned, which means she was literate — many women of the time weren’t.
“We know there’s some anecdotes that have been passed down, but they were written in the 1970s. So, we kind of have to take that with a grain of salt. There are stories that came down from families,” she said. “In a way, part of it is [separating] fact from fiction. Then it’s a lot of research.”
Eliasof said for the women who were boarders in the YWCA, the center only has three snapshots of who lived there, from Censuses in 1920, 1930 and 1940. She said with those names, she can begin to search other records, including old issues of The Montclair Times, marriage records, death records and church records.
However, Eliasof said some, if not all, of those records are missing. She said births and sometimes deaths for women of the time weren’t recorded. If they married, she said, the marriage certificates are lost.
“We don’t know what happens to them after a certain period. So, it’s not an easy thing to find. The fact that we’ve got some snippets of some of the women who did live there is pretty remarkable,” Eliasof said.
But she said there is a way the center can tell a few stories of the women who lived there, those of Barnswell and of Jenny Early, who moved to the YWCA in 1920 when it opened and was listed as a boarder, and then was listed again in 1930.
There’s the story of another young woman who was 16 years old and ended up at the YWCA after her parents died, Eliasof said. She said the young woman stayed at the YWCA because it was a safe place and began working as a domestic servant.
“We haven’t been able to piece those together,” she said. “Everybody’s got their own stories and stories that people have never heard before. We’re trying to reclaim some of their stories and share them with the general public.”
Eliasof said history has often been portrayed as one-dimensional, but she’s eager to share its richness and find those stories not yet known.
“I think these are some of those stories. I think understanding the people of the past helps us understand where we are today and some of the challenges that we face today,” she said.
Guided tours are available May 22 at noon, 1 and 2 p.m. No reservations are required. Masks are optional for the interior portions of the tour. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors with IDs and $8 for children (those under 2 are admitted for free). Tours are free for History Center members as well.
For more information, visit montclairhistory.org.