Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Founding Aswalos House: Separate and Powerful; the YWCA in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1968-1988

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Founding Aswalos House: Separate and Powerful; the YWCA in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1968-1988

Article excerpt

The Boston YWCA established Aswalos House in the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury in 1968. Fifty years earlier, many socalled "black branches" were organized throughout the country, as a strategy to keep black and white women separate and white women in control of the city, or central YWCA. Aswalos House was a different kind of branch. Black women active in school desegregation efforts and community building decided the YWCA could serve their needs, if done on their terms; that is, with a separate branch, located in their community, with authority over their own hiring, programming and finances.

This is the story of Aswalos House, based on the interviews of nine women who were leaders in advocating for this separate and powerful branch. It details the experiences and processes that led to establishing the branch, and considers the particular concerns and strategies of the women involved; the structure of the YWCA, which both encouraged and confounded their efforts; and the changing social discourse about race and power in the United States. The narrative suggests the role separate and powerful institutions established by women of color can play in meeting community needs and in shaping the dialogue between white women and women of color.1

Black women had a long tradition of organizing in Boston. One of the earliest of black women's benevolent organizations was the AfricAmerican Female Intelligence Society of Boston, established in 1832. Women's clubs emerged in the late 19th century; black women found that white organizations had no intention of providing services to communities of color, and they stepped in to fill that void. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin formed The Woman's Era Club in 1892, and published the widely-circulated Woman's Era. Ruffin was instrumental in bringing the many local black women's clubs across the country into one new national organization, the National Association of Colored Women, established in 1895. Their motto, "Lifting as We Climb," captured their goal of serving their community as they enhanced the image of all black women.2

Another local organization for black women, the League of Women for Community Service, Inc., claimed to embody the "commitment of black women to civic and social responsibility." Following their efforts to provide an equivalent to the USO Club for black soldiers during World War I, a group of Boston's black women continued their work together, undertaking civic, social, educational and charitable work, and purchasing a home for their activities at 558 Massachusetts Avenue, in Chester Square. The president of the organization was Maria Baldwin, first black principal of a Cambridge elementary school. The stately home continued to house this organization as it worked "for the benefit of this community."3

The YWCA was established in Boston in 1866. The first Annual Report described the mission as providing for the "physical, moral and spiritual welfare of young women in Boston." From the beginning, the leaders stated their mission more broadly than they implemented it. Not all young women were welcome. The house-mother for the first residence, distressed that so many Roman Catholic girls wanted to stay, reminded the board about her understanding of their goals: "....the object of this organization being to benefit principally our New England girls over whom we can exert a lasting influence." This tension was even more marked in terms of providing residential and employment support to women of color, who were generally urged to find a family in the black community with whom to board.4

In some ways, the act of establishing a women-led, women-serving organization was a radical act. It challenged the boundaries of traditional, Victorian-era gender roles. As Glendora Putnam, past President of the National YWCA (and active in Aswalos House), explained, "These were Christian women, and they were living out their Christianity....the YWCA was founded by a group of Christian women whose husbands did not want them to do this. …

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