African American Women and Christian Activism

New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945

Cover of 'African American Women and Christian Activism' by Judith Weisenfeld

Harvard University Press
Jan. 15, 1998


The middle class Black women who people Judith Weisenfeld’s history were committed both to social action and to institutional expression of their religious convictions. Their story provides an illuminating perspective on the varied forces working to improve quality of life for African Americans in crucial times.

When undertaking to help young women migrating to and living alone in New York, Weisenfeld’s protagonists chose to work within a national evangelical institution. Their organization of a Black chapter of the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1905 was a clear step toward establishing a suitable environment for young working women; it was also an expression of their philosophy of social uplift. And predictably it was the beginning of an equal rights struggle — to work as equals with white women activists. Growing and adapting as New York’s Black community evolved over the decades, the Black YWCA assumed a central role both in the community’s religious life and as a training ground for social action. Weisenfeld’s analysis of the setbacks and successes closes with the National YWCA’s vote in 1946 to adopt an interracial charter and move toward integration of local chapters, thus opening the door to a different set of challenges for a new generation of Black activists.

Weisenfeld’s account gives a vibrant picture of African American women as significant actors in the life of the city. And it bears telling witness to the religious, class, gender, and racial negotiations so often involved in American social reform movements.


“This interesting and useful book fills several important gaps in African-American and women’s history. There has been increasing interest among scholars of Black religious activism in women’s political agency, and among scholars of female religious activism in African-American participation. Yet few have looked at a fruitful intersection of these fields, the Black Young Women’s Christian Associations (YWCAs). Judith Weisenfeld’s book, as one of the first such works, makes a contribution simply by highlighting this neglected area of study. But it does more than that. It not only traces the history of the New York Black YWCA and its leaders, but it also usefully places the story in a broader historical context… Weisenfeld’s careful presentation of the scholarly debates over women’s political agency, African-American participation on white-dominated organizations, the process of neighborhood, institutional, and identity formation, and her thoughtful analysis of class, religion, racial politics, and urban development make this a useful and important contribution to the field.”

— Cheryl Greenberg, American Historical Review

“Drawing on a rich collection of autobiographies, letters, stories, interviews, newspaper and journal articles, archives, film, and secondary literature, Judith Weisenfeld has written a fascinating account of the Black YWCA of New York City during the first half of the twentieth century. She presents a culturally, socially, and religiously diverse cadre of African American women who were dedicated to the cause of racial uplift through the employment of Christian principles… This book should be of great use and interest to novices and specialists alike. In addition to being a intriguing history of African American women’s Christian activism and of Black New York, it is also filled with engaging stories that make readers want to know more… In her introduction, Weisenfeld writes, ‘I have joined others in taking up the challenge of revealing African American women’s strategies, challenges, and contributions to American life.’ With this work, she has joined them in a most admirable manner.”

— Cecilia A. Moore, Church History