Lenora Lattimore has fond memories of the Yates YWCA. In fact, she attributes her days as a youth at the Yates Branch, located at 644 Quindaro, for much of her early success in life.
As a teen in the early 60s, Lattimore and her friends used to pack the branch, which was a hospitable hangout for students.
“Parents would always let you go there when they wouldn’t let you go other places,” she recalled. It was a role the Yates Branch had served for half a century and although the organization no longer has its YWCA handle, the Friends of Yates organization continues to be of great service to the Kansas City, KS community.
The Yates Branch YMCA dates back to 1915, a time long before women were empowered feminist and long before integration. Back then, women were expected to marry, work in the home, and raise children. The few women who weren’t “lucky enough” to get married, went to work. For women of color, those jobs most often included working in the homes of the well-established, and for a college educated colored woman, teaching was one of the few available careers.
YWCA’s across the country offered safe places for young women to live. Some roomed in Y’s year long, while others found Y’s an affordable and acceptable to stay when they traveled. As nice and safe as they were, the Y’s weren’t an option for Black women. It was under these conditions that members of the Kansas City community first began considering the need to open a YWCA to meet the needs of Black women.
As early as June 1907 there were proposals for a “colored branch” of the YWCA. Finally on March 16, 1911, a mass meeting was held at the First Baptist Church, 5th and Nebraska, to organize such a branch. However it wasn’t until March 4, 1913 that the Yates Branch YWCA was officially organized.
The concept of a colored YWCA wasn’t foreign to the national organization. The first “colored” YWCA opened in 1889 in Dayton, OH. In addition, they were following the model of Black YMCA’s, a program that dated back to 1853 with the founding of the first Black YMCA in Washington D.C. The Kansas City YWCA was the only colored YWCA ever opened in Kansas.
The branch’s original theme was “Service, involvement, love.”
Many churches and individuals of different background and beliefs in the Black community were instrumental in making the branch a reality. For that reason, KCK’s Black community felt a sense of ownership of the branch from the beginning, even though the branch didn’t operate independently. The Y was formed as a branch of the Central YWCA located in downtown Kansas City, KS and their board had final say over operations at the Yates Branch.
Yates always maintained an administrative board that oversaw its operations, but the main branch controlled the purse strings.
Originally, the branch was housed in a rented building at 5th and Nebraska. Lydia Smith was sent from the national office to be the first Negro Secretary/executive director.
In 1915, the branch moved to 9th and Nebraska and a matron was hired to supervise roomers. By 1920, records show the branch had moved to 337 Washington Blvd and had 25 girls as roomers.
The branch was known as the “Negro Branch” until 1919, when it was renamed Yates in honor of Josephine Yates, believed to be the first African-American woman to hold a full professor’s position at a university and an African-American women’s club leader in Kansas City, MO. (see box this page for more about Yates)
In 1925 Virginia Durly joined the branch as the new secretary. She was replaced by “V” Velma Hardee Middlebrooks who directed the growth of the branch from 1929-1960.
In a May 1949 article in The Kansas City Call, Middlebrooks says she was brought to the Yates branch to “help this baby walk.” Prior to her arrival, the branch had grown, but slowly. When she arrived the branch had just 45 members and very little programming. By 1949, Middleton had grown the branch membership to more than 1000.
To help raise money, the Y would hold teas and lawn parties, particularly at the new location they relocated to in 1942. In January 1940, a fire destroyed their location at 337 Washington. The Y moved temporarily to the south room of the Central YWCA and the Monrovian Club. In 1942 they moved to new locations at 636 and 640 Quindaro. One building was the residence for borders and transients. The other housed the Y’s administrative offices.
Middlebrooks was particularly proud that the second building was paid for in 18 months. While community residents and churches contributed the money to pay for the Yate’s’ homes, the Central Y held the deeds. It was a bone of contention that would rise up again later when the Y’s eventually folded.
Middlebrooks implemented and/or expanded many of the branches programs. The branch gained national attention for its Cosmopolitan Club. While many branches had programs for business and professional women and programs for industrial women, the groups didn’t mix. The Cosmopolitan Club successfully merged the groups.
The merger was something other branches had attempted, but none equaled the success of the Yates branch.
“In keeping with the “Y” movement for world peace, we felt we must first create peace among ourselves,” explained Middlebrooks in the 1949 Call article. “The girls believed that where there are barriers, there is no true peace. And so, they sought to remove the artificial barriers created by job differences.”
Other popular Y programs included the Y-Teens program. While the Y-Teens were a fairly consistent program at Yates, other clubs came and went. There was the Deroloc Club, Y Collegiate, and even a Tall Girls Club. With the assistance of countless volunteers, the programs offered both educational and recreational programs for children, youth, adults and senior citizens.
Programs emphasized civic and social activities, participation in local and world involvement. While earlier programs focused heavily on proper manners, good grooming and crafts, as times changed, the Ys programs began to focus on the broadening roles for women, including preparing women for work.
Yates offered a popular and free employment service and also helped women find residences. This was a particularly helpful service for young women new to the City.
In addition to women, the Yates Y also served men. With few programs available for Black men, the Yates Y was quick to include men in its programming. In addition, the Yates facilities served as a meeting place for community organizations, who regularly hosted community teas and socials at the Yates Y.
For nearly 90 years, a popular program for the Y was the summer day camp. The program, which dated back to 1911, came to be known as the Stay-at-Home Camp, because unlike other camps where participants spent nights away from home, this program was a day camp where participants returned home each night. The six-week summer program remained popular in the community well into the 21st Century. It was an affordable and safe option for parents, and for those who couldn’t afford it, the Y usually found a way to help cover their fees.
Early on, the national YWCA adopted a program of racial inclusion. As early as 1934, The YWCA encouraged members to speak out against lynching and mob violence, and for interracial cooperation and efforts to protect African Americans’ basic civil rights. Ever a progressive organization nationally, in 1936 the Y held an interracial conference in the South and in 1938 the desegregated their dining room in Columbus, OH. IN 1946, the Y adopted an interracial charter that said “wherever there is injustice on the basis of race, whether in the community, the nation, or the world, our protest must be clear and our labor for its removal, vigorous and steady.”
While the idea of racial parity ran deep in the national Y, the commitment to it locally wasn’t as resolute. Efforts to integrate the Kansas City branches, while encouraged, never stuck. Even as integration became much more acceptable, few African Americans participated in the Central Ys programs and no Whites ventured to the Yates Y.
In addition, Yates Y supporters were beginning to become more and more disenfranchised with the Central Y’s control over their funding. In 1967 the Yates group met and voted to hold an open discussion about Racial Integration with the branches. Some of the Yates’ groups demand where for the Board of Directors develop an “understanding and concern for the Yates Branch as a vital part of the total association’s assets in property and program.”
One of the major concerns of the Yates’ group was the lack of money being put into maintain the Yates facilities and programming. Yates was a thriving central part of KCK’s African American community. While the branch’s membership and revenue were growing, the money was being funneled to the Central Y and Yate’s members didn’t feel their fair share was coming back. The group called for utilizing the Y’s assets “for the good of the whole association.” They also called for changes in programming to assure the use of all facilities and creating changes in staff assignment to encourage integration.
While the proposed changes would have helped the Yates Branch, they would have also helped the Central branch, which was struggling with a decreased membership and participation. Urban Renewal, extension of the Intercity Viaduct, changing demographics, concerns about crime in the area, and growing competition from other programs, began cutting deeply into participation at the Central Y. Void of any changes to turn the program around, participation at the Central Y continued on a downward spiral until 1979 when a move by the United Way proved a death knell for the organization.
The United Way, who had been providing funding to the Y for decades, voted to discontinue its funding to the organization. Basically, the letter of cancellation said, the United way couldn’t see enough services coming from the Y to warrant continuing their investment into the organization. That news wasn’t just bad for the Central Branch, it was bad news for the Yates Branch that operated as a subsidiary of the Central branch.
The United Way had been issuing warnings to the Y for two years. With the possible loss of funding hanging over their heads, the Yates group began organizing to weather the coming storm. The Friends of Yates was formed and incorporated, and he group hired a new young executive director LaDora Murphy Lattimore.
Even though the African American community had raised most of the money to pay for the Yates buildings, the Central Branch held the deeds. If the Yates Y group was to survive beyond the Y’s closure, it was imperative for them to secure those deeds. In a meeting called quickly while the Y’s board president was out of town, Latimore and the Friends of Yates were able to get the board to vote to deed the property to the new Yates organization.
With the help of Judge Meeks, who served on the Central Y’s Board, the deeds to the Yates buildings were executed and in a safe deposit box before the board president returned to town.
“She was really made and tried to reverse the action,” says Lattimore, but it was too late.
From there, the Friends of Yates has never looked back. One of the organization’s first programs was a home for women suffering from domestic violence. Initially the group received funding for the program from the State of Kansas. That program is still a cornerstone of the Friends of Yates programming.
It didn’t take long for Lattimore to get the Friends of Yates back on the list to receive United Way Funding. Today FOY f Yates is one of the strongest community-based organizations in KCK, and provides a broad variety of programming that make a positive difference in the community.
Lattimore retired once, as acting director, but she’s back at the helm, still leading the organization after 35 years.