Theme: Spirituality & Community
The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was founded in New York City in 1858 to advocate for young women’s leadership, justice, human rights, and sustainable development. While membership in the YWCA was open to any woman, at one time its lodging, self-improvement programs, and other services were either segregated or completely inaccessible to non-white women. The guiding principles at the YWCA to enrich and empower diverse groups of women evolved over several decades to shape its equitable delivery of services and its commitment to be a champion for women’s rights.
In 1894, the Seattle YWCA was founded. By 1914, the organization had successfully raised funds to build and open a new eight-story building downtown at 5th Avenue and Seneca Street, which remains its headquarters today. Sadly, African American members were restricted from a variety of vocational training opportunities and could not rent overnight lodging in the new building. Additionally, they were allowed access to the swimming pool only on Saturday afternoon before the water was drained, which was deliberately motivated by the racist belief that black people were less hygienic than whites. Like other YWCA national associations, Seattle formed Culture Clubs for non-white members.
The Phillis Wheatley Branch originated with the Y’s African American Culture Club in 1919. There was an obvious need in Seattle’s Central Area to serve women and girls in the growing African American community. The first location was a house at 24th Avenue and East Howell Street. In 1924, a larger facility was necessary to accommodate programming, and the branch was moved to 21st Avenue and East Yesler Way, where the new space, dubbed “the Phillis Wheatley Branch,” also doubled as a venue where African Americans could gather to socialize outside of church for community meetings, weddings, and dances.
From its beginning, the Phillis Wheatley Branch sent a non-voting representative downtown to the Y board meetings. Bertha Pitts Campbell, the new board representative in the 1930s, protested to change the policy to a voting member. In 1936, the national association approved the request, giving Seattle the distinction of being the first racially integrated YWCA board in the nation. Campbell served four terms as chairperson of the branch.
It is likely that on the national level, the Campbell decision may have been influenced by the dedicated work of Eva del Vakia Bowles. In 1905, the Harlem YWCA hired Bowles as the first African American woman general secretary of a local branch. In 1913, Bowles began serving on the YWCA national board as head of “colored programs,” where she pushed the national board for more representation of African American women at all levels of service, and she advocated to desegregate all YWCAs nationwide. Bowles resigned her position in 1932 after becoming disillusioned with reform progress.
In Seattle in 1952, YWCA services for the African American community significantly expanded, and a new building was erected in the Central Area at 28th Avenue and East Cherry Street. The Phillis Wheatley Branch was first renamed East Side Branch and then East Cherry YWCA Branch.
On November 12, 2019, to celebrate 100 years of service in Seattle’s Central District and to honor the history of the YWCA African American Culture Club, the East Cherry Branch was restored to its original name, the Phillis Wheatley Branch. The City of Seattle proclaimed the day as “Central Area YWCA Day.”
Phillis Wheatley, the branch’s namesake, was an enslaved person who became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry in 1773, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”