By Heather Colletto
Development and Communications Coordinator
YWCA West Central Michigan
It was a bit of a scandal, to say the least. When Helen Claytor was elected as the YWCA West Central Michigan’s (then the Grand Rapids YWCA) first African American board president in 1949, three board members resigned in protest. Thankfully, the remaining members reflected the YW’s forward thinking on civil rights. Even then, Helen was more than qualified to lead the association on a mission to empower women of all races.
Helen’s parents led by example. When their family was building a home in an all-white neighborhood of Minneapolis, neighbors tried desperately to purchase the home to prevent her family from moving in. As their offers went up and up, Helen’s father replied, “There is no amount of money you can offer because my principles are not for sale.”
Helen was unable to find a job with her teaching degree from the University of Minnesota position because of racist hiring practices. Instead, she took a job with the YWCA, having grown up participating in its girls’ programs throughout her childhood and teen years.
Helen eventually became the YWCA Secretary for Interracial Education. In 1942, she spoke in Grand Rapids about the organization’s role in the war effort. The West Michigan city would become her permanent home after that trip led to her “love at first sight” meeting with Dr. Robert Claytor, a pioneer in his own right as the first African American doctor employed at local St. Mary’s Hospital.
When the newlywed Claytors went to purchase a home together, the realtor only showed them homes in all-black areas of town, so they eventually purchased a “for sale by owner” home in a neighborhood of their choosing. When the all-white neighborhood protested, the Claytors moved in anyway (though the previous owners did try to rescind on the sale when they learned their buyers were black). The Claytors made friends with everyone on the block, making waves of change one person at a time.
Helen also brought about change in ways that affected the entire city. She led the 1950s Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to explore improving race relations; she led a similar committee in the 1960s to make recommendations for integrating the 1960s Grand Rapids public schools. Helen was here when we integrated our services, years before the U.S. military and the national baseball league. In fact, our public pool was the first to be racially integrated in the area.
Though Helen eventually served as the first African American board president for the national YWCA and traveled across continents with the YWCA World Council, she never forgot her early days in the YWCA girls’ programs. In her final years, Helen supported our association’s national affiliation with Girls Incorporated®, preventing vulnerability in girls by teaching them ways to be “strong, smart, and bold” in after-school, classroom, and summer camp programs.
When Helen died at age 98 in 2005, she left a legacy of graceful determination to bring racial equality everywhere she went, from Michigan to the rest of the world.
Heather Colletto is the YWCA West Central Michigan’s Development and Communications Coordinator. Like Helen, she is a Grand Rapids transplant because of love.