Coming Street YWCA: 106 Coming Street

106 Coming Street YWCA building, photograph by Monica Bowman, Charleston, South Carolina, October 19, 2016.

106 Coming Street YWCA building, photograph by Monica Bowman, Charleston, South Carolina, October 19, 2016.

Just a short distance down Calhoun Street from Marion Square, we arrive at 106 Coming Street, home of the African American YWCA branch founded in 1907. In February 1911, after years of fundraising, a group of black YWCA women purchased the lot at this site and immediately established a kindergarten, a primary school, a girls’ athletic club, and sewing classes. Mortgage debt eventually forced the organization’s leaders to merge with Charleston’s white YWCA during World War I, but they did so with the stipulation that the property would forever remain with the black YWCA. While this merger required surrendering hard-won independence, it also led black women into interracial meetings with white women.

[Left to right] Federal Judge J. Waties Waring, Mamie Garvin Fields, Elizabeth Waring, and Arthur J. Clement, ca. 1950s, courtesy of the <em>Post and Courie</em>r.

[Left to right] Federal Judge J. Waties Waring, Mamie Garvin Fields, Elizabeth Waring, and Arthur J. Clement, ca. 1950s, courtesy of the Post and Courier. In 1950, Elizabeth Waring delivered her "shock treatment speech" at the Coming Street Y, which she described writing to "break down the stone wall of silence" on the subject of civil rights in Charleston. She also stated that white southerners were "sick" and "confused," while praising the "strength and courage" of black Charlestonians—particularly black women. Clark played a major role in arranging the event; and when members of the white women’s YWCA asked her to cancel it, she refused.

By the 1950s, Charleston’s civic-minded women confronted the question of integrating their organizations, including the YWCA and groups like the Community Chest and the League of Women Voters. An active leader in the YWCA, Septima P. Clark’s unyielding support for integration placed her at odds with many other black women, who feared losing the decision-making control their segregated auxiliaries afforded and the autonomous spaces that allowed them to conceal black political strategizing from white women. At the same time, the African American YWCA promoted activism that included white anti-racist allies, such as Elizabeth Waring, who delivered her infamous civil rights “shock treatment speech” at the Coming Street Y in 1950.

Seventeen years later, white YWCA leaders in Charleston voted to disaffiliate from the national organization due to what they considered its “socialistic” stances, which primarily revolved around racial integration and equality. By 1969, local black women established the YWCA of Greater Charleston, the only branch recognized by the National YWCA, which had revoked the white branch’s charter. A more complete history of the Coming Street Y thus yields a deeper understanding of both intra-racial and interracial politics among women from the Progressive Era through the civil rights years. 

Selection from photograph of YWCA annual meeting with Giles Brown (speaking), Hattie Watson, Septima Clark (second from left) and Lucille Williams, at the Coming Street YWCA, Charleston, South Carolina,&nbsp;May 2, 1952, YWCA Papers, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Selection from photograph of YWCA annual meeting with Giles Brown (speaking), Hattie Watson, Septima Clark (second from left) and Lucille Williams, at the Coming Street YWCA, Charleston, South Carolina, May 2, 1952, YWCA Papers, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.