The National Park Service has awarded the Dayton nonprofit Early Visions $500,000 to preserve the site of the country’s first African American YWCA. The branch originally formed in 1889 and moved into a West Dayton house on South Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, what was then Summit Street, in the early 1940s. While the branch closed in the 1970s, one childhood member has had a lifelong vision of reopening the center as a community resource for women and girls in West Dayton.
WYSO’s Leila Goldstein spoke with Elizabeth Early-Gainous, president of Early Visions, outside the house last week.
Archival photos of the West Dayton YWCA, also known as the Summit Street Y, provided by Early Visions and Elizabeth Early-Gainous. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Elizabeth Early-Gainous: My name is Elizabeth Early-Gainous. I am the keeper of the history of the West Side YWCA. This building is fabulous, fabulous. Number one it’s the first Black YWCA in the United States, and you're standing here at the steps of the mother of integration. This property and the YWCA Central and the Black YWCA integrated in the 1950s during the time that women did not have credit, women’s surnames were their husbands name. These Black educated women pooled together their funds and bought this Kuntz mansion back in 1941.
When I was a little girl, I would sit up on the old Dunbar and MacFarlane school grounds and watch the ladies come in this building with their pillbox purses and hats and gloves, carrying their beautiful dishes with cakes. I wanted to be those women. I used to sneak over here and peep in.
When that door opened up one day, I had the opportunity to go in. A young lady was having a discussion with another young lady, I don't know what it was about. What she told her was, “You are enough.” And she peeped around the corner and she said, “And you're enough too.” From that day, I became a lifetime member of the West Side YWCA.
They did field trips. You could do art. I learned just about everything that I am today from the women of the yesterday. My grandmother was a music teacher here, Ms. Rachel Early-Powell. When she would come and do music, I would sit and I would look and say, “Wow, these are women of my community, not the people on TV, not the people that you’ll never see. These are people that are in my community making my community strong.”
Like I said, where we're standing right now is the mother of integration. It was a beautiful thing, in some ways. It's a double-edged sword. When we integrated the girls were no longer using the dormitories here. The girls were going downtown or going to other organizations. So, when we integrated, it closed and it left a hole in our community. I'm here to fill that hole again. We’re here to fill that hole.
For the last 22 years, I've been supporting this property and trying to keep this property for my community. It's been very, very difficult. I've had a lot of break-ins. It has gone through a lot and it's been very difficult financially. When I found out I got that grant, I exhaled. I've been holding my breath for so long. Getting a civil rights grant in West Dayton in 2020, the year of women, is a blessing.
This building here will be a refuge, where you can come in and be who you are. I want to do a music studio. I want to teach economics, it’s so important. Self pride, self esteem, self confidence, self worth. I walked in this building as a little girl and I came out as a woman. A woman with pride of their community and the color of my skin. I was proud to be a strong Black woman and I got that here. That's what I want the other girls in my community to do.
Learn more about the history of the West Side YWCA and plans for the Early Visions Purpose Center at earlyvisions.org. The nonprofit will hold a cleanup event on July 4th weekend. More information can be found on the organization’s Facebook page.