How Did the YWCA of Portland Respond to the Social Challenges Posed by World War II?

Portland YWCA and World War II

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Aid to Women

Interracial Charter

Youth on the Move


How Did the YWCA of Portland Respond to the Social Challenges
Posed by World War II?

Research by Rose M. Murdock, Mary K. Gayne, and Patricia A. Schechter

       "Terrific change" well describes the dual character of wartime Portland: terrific in the sense of inspiring terror and terrific in the sense of intense excitement.[1] A key to this change was the phenomenal movement of people via migration, employment, enlistment, and incarceration. Oregon witnessed tremendous human mobilization in the shipyards, the military, and internment camps and most of this activity touched Portland directly. City officials met these challenges with a minimal investment of resources and with an eye toward maintaining the social and political status quo, most notably in terms of racial segregation. Innovation in social planning instead came from the private sector and the federal government. The Kaiser Corporation built housing and childcare facilities in Vanport, the town-like area built to accommodate shipyard workers, which ranked as the nation's largest housing project at that time, home to 50,000 people. There was, however, little long-term investment in supporting social change. The emblem of this stance was Vanport itself, hastily constructed on the flood plain of the Columbia River. Still home to some 15,000 residents in 1948, a significant portion of whom were African American, Vanport flooded in May, effectively destroying the "town." The lack of warning and protection to Vanport residents and the suffering they endured provide haunting testament to the lack of welcome facing newcomers to Portland, especially people of color, during these years.

       Under these difficult circumstances, the Portland YWCA tried to offer kindness and flexibility. The organization wrote one of only two letters received by Oregon's governor commending restraint toward Japanese-American citizens, whom the Secretaries of the YWCA praised as loyal and patriotic.[2] While a visit from national YWCA staff noted that there was an "anti-Japanese group" within the Portland association, other records note the awkward and sad good-byes at farewell parties among club girls and the support in the form of transportation, letters, and visits provided to Japanese YWCA members and staff.[3] When the YWCA was pressured to uphold racial segregation in the military by renting its Williams Avenue Branch building to the U.S.O. for the use of African-American soldiers stationed in Portland, leaders tried to point themselves in a progressive direction by pursuing the integration of its own segregated programming. African-American YWCA leaders moved their offices from Williams Avenue to Taylor Street downtown and black women and girls were encouraged to make full use of the building. This innovation, capped by the hiring of Marjorie Jackson as the first African-American associate executive director of a city YWCA, earned the Portland YWCA high marks with the National, thought to be "second only to Brooklyn in integration of membership," according to a 1944 report.[4] The election of Dorothy McCullough Lee (who was white) as mayor of Portland in 1950 was a new high water mark of female ambition and achievement in Portland. Although the city in 1950 was marked by "financial insolvency, cultural backwardness, and racial prejudice," according to one scholar, the Portland YWCA embraced racial integration, heralded the new United Nations and expanded roles for women in the public sphere, and embraced an ambitious capital campaign for a new building in downtown Portland.[5]

1. Annual Report to National YWCA, 1942, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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2. Betty Britton, Mildred Bartholomew, and Lazelle Alway to Governor Charles Sprague, 8 December 1941, Charles Sprague Papers, Oregon State Library, Salem, Oregon.
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3. "Report of Local Visit," by Esther Briesemiester, March 6-7, 1944, Community Files, Administrative Affairs, National YWCA Records, New York City (Microfilm, Reel 207).
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4. Minutes of Committee of Management [Williams Avenue YWCA], 11 February 1944, Williams Avenue Pages, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.
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5. E. Kimback MacColl, The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon, 1915-1950 (Portland: The Georgian Press, 1979), p. 654.
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