A social force, culture builder, educational center and powerful advocacy base, the Negro YWCA was vital to African Americans advancement in Omaha.
Founded in the 1890s, the Negro Women’s Christian Association of Omaha was pivotal force in the city. The organization originally met at African Americans’ homes regularly, learning and sharing and bringing the community together. Faced with a city segregated by informal Jim Crow rules, these pioneer leaders were facing discrimination daily and organizing in response. The activities of the Negro YWCA had died down by 1912, but re-formed just a year later in 1913. Focused on healthcare, eldercare and education, the charity established programs, raised funds and started outreach of several kinds.
The organization is be referred to in this article by its many names, including Negro Women’s Christian Association (1890-1920), the Colored Young Women’s Christian Association (1920-1930) or the North Side YWCA (1930-1969).
Segregation in Charity
The YWCA has a history of segregation across the country, and of fighting against segregation. Founded in 1855 in London, the Young Women’s Christian Association, or YWCA, is widely acknowledged as being a leader in most major United States movements for social justice, including race relations, labor unions, and the empowerment of women. Coming to the US in 1858, the organization started housing programs for rural women moving to cities, and developed outreach activities to support women in need. In the 1890s, the first African American YWCA branch was opened in Dayton, Ohio, and the first YWCA for Native American women opened in Oklahoma. In 1915, the organization hosted the first interracial conference in the South, and in the 1930s, members across the country were encouraged to protect African American’s basic civil rights by advocating against lynching and mob violence and for interracial cooperation. YWCA adopted its Interracial Charter in 1945, and stayed at the forefront of race relations as they moved forward. However, the national Negro Women’s Christian Association stayed intact through the 1970s.
Starting in the 1890s
Founded in Omaha in the 1890s, the segregated YWCA was initially focused on social activities, women’s voting rights, and building community among the city’s African American neighborhoods. They sponsored annual balls for the Black community, held Vaudeville shows at the Mecca Hall at 24th and Grant, and held contests to earn money for charity. There were also regular speakers invited to educate, advocate and empower the members.
An important figure in Omaha’s African American cultural scene, Helen Mahammitt (1873-1956), is credited as an initial founder of the organization, along with Mrs. Jessie Hale Moss (1880-1920), who was a trained social worker who fought vigorously for the African American community in Omaha. In its second incarnation, Mrs. James Jewell, Mrs. Alphonso Wilson, Jane Duncan, Florence Riggs, Eva Walker, Pinkie Osborne and Mrs. Irvin Gray were leaders, among others.
Funded by the Omaha Community Chest from its inception, other organizations in the same league with the Negro Women’s Christian Association were Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, the Child Saving institute, House of Hope, the Christ Child society, the Catholic and Jewish welfare and charitable societies, the Augustana Lutheran Women’s Home society, the Salvation Army, the Volunteers of America, the Hattie B. Monroe Home for Crippled Children, Minerva Cottage, the Masonic Boys’ home, the YWCA, The YMCA, the Red Cross, Society for the Friendless, Nebraska Tuberculosis Society, Nebraska Children’s Home Society, Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and the Junior League Day Nursery, among others.
A Turn in the Organization
In 1914, the organization took a turn when John Grant Pegg, regarded informally as Omaha’s “Black councilman” because of his political influence, spoke at a gathering of the association. He pleaded with the group to become active in providing charity to the community, and that day an outreach committee was formed to take direct action. Meeting at the Rescue Hall at 1423 North 24th regularly after that, the outreach committee reportedly made real change throughout the city’s African American community. One of their first activities was led by early president Martha T. Smith, who led the development of the Negro Old Folks Home, which renamed for her in 1953.
However, the next year after Pegg spoke, in 1915, there was a battle within the association when his wife wouldn’t allow the group to continue to fund the home. According to the regularly mis-representing and frequently racist Omaha World-Herald, the group voted to disband and close the home. However, in 1916 they re-incorporated and continued operating the facility for another 40 years.
In 1920, the Omaha World-Herald took great pride in the racist pronouncement that three white women had bought a house at 2306 North 22nd Street for the so-called North Side YWCA. Mrs. Charles Offutt, Mrs. Edward L. Burke and Mrs. Sam S. Caldwell were named as the benefactors who spent approximately $20,000 on buying, renovating and furnishing the house. A commercial kitchen and dormitories for African American women were built in the house. The house was seen as perfectly positioned because of its proximity to Zion Baptist, St. John AME, and a nearby shirt factory that employed 60 African American women daily. The article was proud to announce that a white woman from the “main” YWCA for the city would be responsible for overseeing the new location.
During the same era, the Negro Y.W.C.A. purchased a new location for their Colored Old Folks Home at 3029 Pinkney Street. It stayed there until it closed permanently.
Continuing Onward from the 1930s
In the 1930s, the association was regularly involved civic activities like building a new University of Omaha campus and locating jobs for African Americans.
The Works Progress Administration and Omaha Public Schools were regular partners during the Great Depression, as the N.W.C.A. held reading, writing and math classes at their offices. Large, formal dinners were held for unemployed African American families, and fundraisers gathered food and gifts for Thanksgiving from local churches. They sponsored a “stay-at-home” camp for children every summer throughout the decade, including performances and demonstrations at the end of the session. There were 75 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 15 who attended the five week sessions, which were held in partnership with the Omaha Urban League, Omaha Public Schools and the Works Progress Administration.
A 1933 report on urban sociology by Thomas Sullenger at the University of Omaha suggested the organization was being kept from being fully effective. “The North Side YWCA is working under handicaps with the limited facilities at their disposal… With the large number of girls eligible for membership in this organization, there should be a greater outlet for their activities…”
While they hosted a community center at the former Webster Telephone Exchange Building in the 1930s, the N.W.C.A. would pivot again in the coming years. During this decade, the North Side YWCA was seen as being in the same league as the Omaha Family Welfare Association, the Christ Child Center, the South Side Cultural Center and the Urban League. While they’d been funded by general donations to the Omaha Community Chest from the 1910s, by the 1930s they were seen as a race-specific charity and treated differently by donors.
World War II and the 1950s
The Northside YWCA formed the Omaha Negro Youth Council in partnership with the Woodson Center and the Omaha Urban League in 1942. Intended for high school students, was “…a means of developing greater opportunity for leadership, cultural expression, and more wholesome social affairs.” The mission was, “to bring greater unity among all high school boys and girls and to help create better understanding between races.” Mrs. G. Aneita Blackburn was the leader then.
During this era, the YWCA Camp Brewster offered a few opportunities for young women from the North Side YWCA to stay there in the summer as part of their integrated outreach.
The Civil Rights Movement moved into its modern phase after the war, and organizations like the DePorres Club, 4CL, the Black Panthers and others were rallying African Americans to action throughout North Omaha.
When it emerged after World War II, Omaha’s Negro Young Women’s Christian Association was on the forefront of Omaha’s Civil Rights movement. In 1948, member Mildred Brown, also the publisher of the Omaha Star newspaper, hosted a meeting with thirty-five people. Focused on employment for African Americans, the meeting led to Brown partnering with DePorres Club to take action, propelling justice through activism throughout Omaha. In 1942, ’43, and ’57 the organization was a sponsor of Bayard Rustin as he spoke in Omaha. Along with Ms. Brown, later members included Martha Evans, C. Ross, Elizabeth Jordan and Ruth Wiles. Verneta Hill was the executive director from 1948 to 1953.
By the late 1950s, the North Side YWCA had relocated to a building at North 28th and Miami Streets, and the Midwest Athletic Club was located in their original building at North 22nd and Grant. The Martha T. Smith Home for the Aged, named for the leader who’d started the former Colored Old Folks Home, closed permanently in 1961. Activities were mentioned as happening there through 1969, including a new program called a “Y” Club in that year.
By the 1970s, there was almost no mention of the organization left in Omaha.
- 933 North 25th Avenue—Negro Old Folks Home and Negro Y.W.C.A. headquarters (demolished)
- 2306 North 22nd Street—Headquarters
- 3029 Pinkney Street—Colored Old Folks Home and Negro Y.W.C.A. headquarters (demolished)
- 2213 Lake Street—Community center
- North 28th and Miami Streets—Headquarters (demolished)