When the YWCA of Rochester and Monroe County hosts its Allies and Activists Empowering Women Luncheon on Thursday, Myra Henry believes it will be a fitting symbolic combination of two important aspects of the center’s work: eliminating racism and empowering women.
“In the spring, the YWCA had a Stand Against Racism event. And then in the fall, we’ve had an Empowering Women Luncheon,” says Henry, president and CEO of the YWCA. “So this upcoming event is an opportunity to bridge and lean into the fullness of our mission, which is to eliminate racism and empower women.”
The event, held at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center, will include a keynote address by Ilyasah Shabazz, an award-winning author, speaker and educator, who is spreading the legacy of her parents, activists Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz.
A short documentary film is also part of the program. It is produced by Our Voices Project on the 100th anniversary of YWCA’s historic Clarissa Street Branch for Colored Women in the Third Ward Historic District, an important but often overlooked story in the struggle for racial equity.
The origins of the YWCA in Rochester were progressive, starting in the late 1880s factory boom. Its building, still in use today, was a stone’s throw away from the train station where many young women often arrived from the countryside. The YWCA provided a safe environment, job training, and educational support for this frequently exploited population.
The foundations for the Clarissa Street Branch began in 1922 and, indicative of the time, was a segregated site for young Black women. Similar to the North Clinton location, the Clarissa Street Branch was invaluable to the development of what was then called Rochester’s “Black Wall Street.”
“It really became this community nexus where people could gather for whatever the need was,” says Henry, who researched the site and found several living members of the branch who were the subject of the film and will be celebrated at the luncheon.
“The YWCA hired a woman from Harlem as a director of the branch in Clarissa Street who was very strict. Your hair had to be just right or you’d get in trouble,” Henry says, recalling a story from Rachel McDaniels, now in her 90s, who was educated as a young girl at the location. “But with that strictness, there was also that loving and nurturing. It instilled strength and independence, you know, being able to see yourself, as a young Black girl, with this strong, successful role model.”
“As the first Black president and CEO of the Rochester YWCA in its 140-year history, I was determined another 100 years wouldn’t go by and we lost this story,” she continues.
Henry found evidence of integration being suggested between the two locations as far back as 1941, well ahead of the curve compared to many other large organizations. However, it was 10 years after that suggestion when services were integrated into one location at North Clinton Avenue. This luncheon will honor those who fought for that progress.
“Without a Mrs. McDaniels, who can tell me the importance of equality or having that space for Black girls, without the activists who lived and protested during the activities of the day–those are the shoulders I stand on today,” Henry says.
Today, the YWCA provides a variety of services to marginalized women through emergency shelter, long-term housing programs, job training, including a partnership with University of Rochester Medical Center, harm reduction support for people struggling with substance abuse, racial equity with Stand Against Racism, and education including its RISE program at Edison Career and Technology High School. The YWCA RISE program served 242 individuals, 90 percent of whom were people of color during the 2020-2021 financial year.
In the same time period, with its housing services, the YWCA served almost 900 women and families, 80 percent of whom were people of color. In Monroe County, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that there were 815 people homeless on any given night in 2020 and that almost 65 percent were people of color.
“Those are the disparities that, within the last two years, have shown their ugly head again, and they are disproportionately affecting Black and brown girls specifically,” says Henry. “It is a sobering and humbling experience, and a reminder of how we need to hear those in our community and answer their call.”