By: Jane Eliasof
Montclair Historical Society
An 8-year old African-American girl listened attentively as I ran through the history of the Israel Crane House, a 1796 Federal building that was once home to one of the “founding fathers” of Montclair, New Jersey. I got to the 20th century part of the history and said, as I always do, “And in 1920, the house became a YWCA, especially for African American girls.” The little girl brightened and sat up taller in her chair. “That’s me!” she said proudly.
For me, that little girl’s pride and her thrill over being able to identify with a piece of history encapsulated what is driving the Montclair Historical Society to delve into the period when the house built by a man who had once been a slave-owner served as a YWCA for girls and young women of color.
In the early 20th century, the house witnessed an America that was rapidly changing. High school students attended proms there because, although schools were integrated in town, the races could not mingle socially. Girls learned leadership skills through their participation in the Girl Reserves and as counselors at the affiliated Y Camps. They had an opportunity to try out sports and take classes that might otherwise have been closed to them, like tennis and French. And they learned about their heritage when Harlem Renaissance greats like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois came to speak at the house.
In 1965, the women at the Y decided they needed a more modern space, rather than a 200-year old home, but they needed to use the land on which the old house was located. A group of townspeople got together and, in just three short weeks, moved the house to a new location and began to restore it to reflect the period when the Crane family lived there. Although the Y continued to carry out its mission in a new building at its original site for another half century, the old Israel Crane House that housed the YWCA became a historic house museum, showcasing the period from 1796 to about 1860.
Now, 48 years later, the Montclair Historical Society is in the midst of capturing both the history and spirit of the women who were involved in the YWCA. Through their oral histories, lots of research, and many hours spent with old photographs, we are beginning to piece together a story of women who were striving to make the world a better place — and to make a better place for themselves and their daughters in that world.
But this story is not just about a few women in a little Y in Montclair, New Jersey. The house is a window on to a much larger story about civil rights in a “progressive” northern community, about the women of both races who fought that fight both quietly as ladies and more vociferously as activists, and the role the local and national YWCA played in the civil rights movement.
The more I speak with the women involved in the YWCA, the more impressed I am with their determination and grace. We hope, as we move forward with the project, that more women will come forward to share their stories with us. In the end, our goal is to produce an oral history documentary about the Montclair YWCA, reinterpret the historic house and create a permanent exhibit that better reflects its diverse history, and develop public programs that celebrate the spirit of these women and the YWCA.
If you’re in the area on Sunday, March 3 at 3 pm, please drop by the Montclair Historical Society when I’ll be giving an update on this important and compelling project. Also, if you know of someone involved in Montclair’s YWCA in the first half of the 20th century, or if you know of artifacts we could borrow for the exhibit, please let us know by sending a note to YWCA@montclairhistorical.org.
Jane Eliasof is the Executive Director of the Montclair Historical Society