When the YMCA movement began in America in 1851, African Americans were excluded from membership based on legally mandated practices of segregation. Just a few years later, the first YMCA for African Americans was founded in Washington DC. Over a decade later the onset of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery created new opportunities for black people, especially students, in the Y.
Finally in 1915, Carter Woodson organized the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and History” at the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago. This was the beginning of Negro History Week, the forerunner of today’s annual celebration of Black History Month.
Black History Month is particularly close to our hearts here at YMCA Blue Ridge. Our founder Dr. Willis D. Weatherford, Sr. was an outspoken activist for race equality throughout his career. In turn, Blue Ridge served as a hub for these progressive ideas and marked us a modern institution for the civil rights movement in the south.
Prior to the founding of Blue Ridge, Weatherford served as the Student Secretary of the International Committee for the YMCA. Under this position he traveled throughout the country, delivering speeches and providing mentorships to passionate young college students. At these campuses Weatherford found himself establishing friendships with “Negro waiters and janitors” despite the social and legal implications of the South’s Jim Crow policies. He developed an intellectual curiosity for the plight of African Americans and from these experiences, became increasingly focused on improving race relations between whites and blacks. Most notably, he desired to work on this problem at the local level.
It was during this tumultuous time, in the wake of widespread racial hostility and prejudice that Weatherford set out to establish Blue Ridge. He dreamed of a permanent meeting place where young people, of all races, could gather in an inspirational setting to discuss new ideas and strengthen their faith. And so it came to be in 1906- a southern conference and training center founded on the principles of the dignity in labor, the value of religion, the beauty of nature, and respect for all mankind.
Weatherford’s interests in improving race relations eventually gave rise to the five principles upon which Blue Ridge was founded. In 1908, he sought to publicly address these problems. He and six other southern religious and educational leaders—four of whom were African American men—gathered for an open dialogue about “the present race question, with special reference to what the college men of the South might do to better conditions.” This conversation, extremely uncommon at the time, would inspire Weatherford to write a book about African Americans in the South, the first of many of nationally-recognized publications that would be used in YMCA study groups and even as text books in college courses.
The Conferences: Unity & Action
When Blue Ridge hosted its first conference in 1912, the South had long been a racially divided region. The Assembly became a unique isolated place where social and religious issues could be confronted, examined, and challenged. It was unlike any institution of its time, one of the few southern places where progressive and liberal subjects were not off limits. Here, Southern white leaders and college students would meet and discuss the subject of race and eventually, welcome black speakers and participants to join them. While their presence was limited, even a small number of African Americans guest speakers was significant in the context of the segregated and racially hostile South.
1917: A meeting of 48 southern Christian leaders, “educators, ministers, social workers, clubwomen, church workers, doctors, judges, public officials, and YMCA/YWCA personnel” who represented “nearly every state in the South . . . [and] included twelve women and several blacks.” The conference focused on the problem of lynching but also discussed the migration of southern blacks, legal measures to prevent mob violence, and “the role of religion in racial reform.” During this time the United States entered World War I and the YMCA established the Colored Work Department under the War Work Council to organize African American troops.
1919: Training program for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. This committee, organized by Weatherford, was one of the first of its kind in the South to bring the races together on a local level and foster communication and understanding. The interracial programs of the CIC also sought to help reintegrate black soldiers back into America and eliminate the resurgence of racial tension and violence.
1920: Conference for religious leaders to discuss the “relationship of the church to race problems.” Over seventy-five southern ministers and college presidents, including Robert Russa Moton, Tuskegee Institute principal and successor to Booker T. Washington, attended. Participants voiced their support for the CIC and other local interracial organizations, called for better schools and housing for blacks, and urged white southerners to live up to the “equal” element of the “separate but equal” creed. Moton in particular spoke on the subjects of lynching, social equality, disfranchisement of African Americans, and Jim Crow transportation.
1923: The Southern Student Conference (held annually at Blue Ridge since 1913) welcomes George Washington Carver as a guest speaker. Carver was a well-known African American horticulturist and faculty member at the black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, most known for his scientific research with the peanut. Carver’s experience at Blue Ridge was significant and student interest in his leadership was immense. Carver’s appearance at Blue Ridge proved to be the start of several friendships and mentorships with a number of white YMCA students, showing them that African Americans were capable of high achievement. Carver would return again in 1924, arguably making an even greater impact. As a “guest of the Virginia Delegation” during his time there he was treated as such- invited to eat and sleep among the all-white group. Since the conference center still segregated the dining of blacks and whites, Carver’s stay, in effect, was the first recorded racial integration of Blue Ridge Assembly.
1925: Southern Student conference welcomes the African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune as a guest speaker. She is the first known African American woman to visit the Assembly.
1926: Southern Student Conference welcomes Mordecai Johnson of Howard University. Johnson’s speech said, “I don’t advise you to start out putting your hand on this political measure, and putting your hand on this institution trying to change it around. This is not where you begin. You start out with John Jones when you meet him tomorrow morning—the individual toward the individual—acting radically upon the principles of creative love.”
1928: Southern Student Conference welcomes John Hope of Morehouse College as a guest speaker.
“Blue Ridge was the first place in the South where outstanding colored leaders could come to present to the leadership of the white South in large numbers, the needs and problems of the Negro people and the ways of meeting the same.”