Her Legacy: Meet the Women of West Michigan Who Made History

Featuring Helen Jackson Claytor

(1907-2005)

First Black Woman President of YWCA

Throughout her long life, Helen Jackson Claytor was a constant advocate of racial equality and minority rights, both nationwide and locally in
Grand Rapids.

Born in 1907 to a teacher and a Pullman porter who rode the rails while studying law, Claytor was raised in the shadow of the University of Minnesota, where her parents oversaw the higher education of their daughters. Local whites offered extravagant sums to buy the family out of the area, but the principles of Claytor’s dedicated parents were “not for sale.” Claytor enacted these principles in her adult life with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and in the face of housing discrimination in the city of Grand Rapids.

Active in the YWCA Girl Reserves from youth through college, Claytor later used her bachelor’s degree in education at the Black Branch of the YWCA in Trenton, New Jersey. Ten years later, when she returned to the YWCA in Kansas City after the loss of her husband, Earl Wilkins, Claytor came to the attention of the national YWCA board in New York City. They offered her a position in interracial education, and Claytor began traveling the nation to study interracial practices, which eventually led to desegregation within the organization and to her marriage to Robert Claytor in Grand Rapids.

In 1949, Claytor was elected the first black president of the Grand Rapids YWCA, marking the first time in the United States that a black woman had been elected president of a community YWCA.

Still, the victory caused a riff among the board and in the community. Three board members resigned, saying “it would be disastrous” to have a black president. Their concerns were disproven locally and nationally, however, when 20 years later in 1967 Claytor assumed the presidency of the national YWCA, the first black woman to hold the post.


The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org.


 

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