Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of YWCA

BOND: Now, you go to the YWCA and when you come, it's focused, as one would think, on women -- improving lives for women.


BOND: When you leave, it has changed its focus to focus almost exclusively on eliminating racism. It seems to me that's a big jump.

HEIGHT: Yes. Yeah, when I went in, in 1944 I was a secretary for integration of education, and I had the experience of two years later going to the convention, where the issue was before -- it was really desegregating. And I had Dr. [Benjamin] Mays come, and he said to the group, "If you have a Christian purpose, and I hear so many saying the time isn't ripe, but in light of your purpose, it's your job to ripen the time." That was a helpful thing, because what I tried to do was to bring into the YWCA those who could communicate what was necessary.

From that action, where the YWCA adopted the Interracial Charter, with some leaving because they were very unhappy about it, but the commitment began there, and by 1970, having gone through a lot of different things, in a conference of black women, we came up saying the YWCA had seven purposes, seven objectives, as it came into convention: To eliminate poverty, to eliminate war, to eliminate racism, and it went on and on. But the women, in a conference of five hundred black women -- and that was a risk that I had to take, because even some of the black members said, "Why are you calling for a segregated meeting?"

But the five hundred women met and they said -- I did not have this on an agenda when I went into it -- after three days of looking at it and seeing the role women of color had played, and realizing that they were in an organization which in 1895, when it started with a racial branch, there was not any major group drawn from the large majority population in the country that would have had a black executive and had an institution. So what we were -- what we'd call advanced then was now something we were ready to give up and to say we will work for the full integration of people.

And so we went into the convention and said, "The YWCA wants to thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists, by any means necessary." Now that, for me, let me see the value of being as a staff person, but also taking the leadership and not trying to do it myself, but bringing in people who could help the YWCA, but also to lift up all of those women from the South and all over who strongly said, "Given our purpose, we cannot tolerate talking about segregation in a society and tolerate it within our own membership." So that's why I have to say that I think organizations like that are very important. But I have to credit the fact -- and as I said, if you look at my bio and you see I entered as the secretary for Interracial Education. After thirty-three years I retired as the director of the Office of Racial Justice. And that shows you the advances that the YWCA movement made.