“This work has brought me into many very delicate and difficult positions. It has caused its full share of criticism and heartache. Some of my white friends have berated me for going too fast; some of my colored friends have called me names because I would not go faster.” -Dr. Weatherford
Residents of the surrounding area did not always approve of the Assembly’s progressive racial practices. Blue Ridge sometimes received anonymous threats when area residents learned that African American speakers would be guests at the center. For example, in August 1919, a black YMCA secretary came to Blue Ridge, and a “disgruntled white man in the neighborhood made his disapproval of this integration known.” Several weeks later, the laundry building near Robert E. Lee Hall burned. Weatherford believed this man set the fire that destroyed the building.
Beyond these physical threats, Blue Ridge also had to consider the reactions of its supporters and take care not to alienate or offend them. At the time, many Southern whites did not want forced integration. Weatherford feared that by welcoming African American guests to Blue Ridge, it might stir up controversy among its long-term friends and family, southern leaders, parents of young conferees, and worst of all, the Assembly’s generous donors. If Blue Ridge were to be perceived as a radical place that fostered “dangerous ideas”, it would undoubtedly lose its mainstream appeal and support.
These funding issues in particular limited Blue Ridge’s activities, but furthermore, by allowing blacks to eat and sleep side by side with whites, Blue Ridge would be violating the law. To go against both social and legal norms would enable authorities to revoke the Assembly’s operating license. Weatherford believed the racial stances that Blue Ridge took at this time were as liberal as the institution could make and still keep its doors open.
From 1912 to 1930, Blue Ridge was primarily an all-white conference center. In those years it did not openly dispute segregation, argue explicitly for social equality between blacks and whites, or condone interracial dating or marriage. Instead, Blue Ridge served as a place where whites and blacks could meet and discuss racial problems and where African American leaders could come to speak and offer their views on a variety of subjects. This alone dramatically influenced how white attendees perceived and treated African Americans.
The impact of Weatherford’s subtle, grassroots effort was profound. Blue Ridge helped to influence the attitudes of the young college men and women it served, thereby changing how people interacted with one another in day-to-day life. This moderate approach would eventually help whittle away at the racist structure of southern society over the years. And because these conferences were held primarily for young people, the future leaders of America and those most open to new ideas, the movement touched countless lives over the course of history.
While perceptions cannot be quantified, it is clear that white students in particular were affected by what they saw, heard, and experienced at Blue Ridge. It influenced how many of them chose to spend their lives, inspiring bold action to stand up to racism. For instance, it is noted that one leader of the Louisiana delegation, who previously had threatened to walk out on Carver’s 1924 Blue Ridge speech, later tried to prevent a lynching in his hometown.
Reflecting on the impact of the center later in life, Weatherford proudly wrote, “Blue Ridge has probably done more than any other single institution to make the white people of the South conscious of their responsibility to serve this largest minority group in America. . . . The spirit of cooperation developed there has sent thousands of the choicest college students back to their respective colleges or out into the world as advocates of better racial understanding.”
Meanwhile, many strides were being made at the national level. In 1931, delegates from the National Council vowed to “work steadfastly toward the goal of eliminating all racial discriminations.” Later in 1946 Y-USA urged local branches to formally desegregate. Finally, in 1951, the color bar was broken at Blue Ridge.
1956 staff photo
Weatherford’s interest in race relations directly influenced the five principles upon which Blue Ridge was founded:
- There is a dignity in all human labor. Anything ministering to human need is a God-given responsibility.
- The study of religion must be intellectually respectable.
- Religion is indispensable in building life values.
- All people are created in the image of God and worthy of love and respect.
- In the beauty of Blue Ridge’s natural setting, guests and staff should spend time in reflection/introspection through quiet time, prayer, Bible study or meditation.
Weatherford believed that the ethics of Christianity required Southerners to address the treatment of African Americans and work to improve the social and economic problems faced by black people. As a Christian, it was an obligation of each person to find the value in others, especially those different from oneself, and love them as equals.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” John 13:16
Furthermore, Weatherford strongly believed in the value of manual labor. He wrote “the experience of slavery had left a deep psychological scar on the South and its attitude toward work. He reasoned that “the slave hated labor because it branded him as inferior, and the white man shunned labor because he thought it was the slave’s province.” Weatherford wanted to change these attitudes and instill the idea “that any task which added richness to human existence was a sacred task.” Each summer he used the college-aged men and women who worked at Blue Ridge to help manifest this vision. The conference center also employed a small number of African American workers who assisted with providing food and laundry services. Some of these employees commuted daily from Black Mountain, while others resided in Booker T. Washington Hall (later demolished in the 1970s).
Martha Washington Hall
In Weatherford’s opinion these men and women, white and black, represented the South’s future and would help transform the lives of many others. Because he viewed them as potential leaders, Weatherford hoped that a summer program of work and study would encourage them to contribute to their schools and communities. Blue Ridge Assembly promoted the philosophy that race relations would improve by broadening bright young students’ perspectives on race, and they, in turn, would change the world through their future work. These collegiate were held to high standards in speech and behavior. Racist language in particular was not permitted among the staff. For example, it is said that on one occasion, after a white member of the staff complained about the nature of manual labor, Weatherford responded, “You had better change your attitude toward both work and Negroes—or leave Blue Ridge. We respect both here”, reflected the founding principle that everyone should be treated equally.
Weatherford’s attitudes on race and equality continue to be a part of our heritage, preserved in the five founding principles that our staff still follow to today. We are proud to have been a part of this civil rights movement in the South, influencing a generation of young leaders, united under the Y values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.Today YMCA B lue Ridge Assembly is just as committed to the principles of diversity and inclusion. Each day, we work to ensure everyone, regardless of gender, income, faith or cultural background, has the opportunity to experience our life-changing programs.
YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly continues to adapt to needs of the changing times as we build healthier communities and strengthen mind, body, and spirit- for ALL.
“The Limits to Improving Race Relations in the South: The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina, 1906–1930” by Andrew McNeill Canady, 2009