Helen Jackson Claytor Is The True Social Justice Warrior Grand Rapids Needed
All month long, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and I will be sharing Black History facts that have taken place right here in Grand Rapids.
If you missed the last one, you can learn about Paul I. Phillips, the 1st Black Elected Public Officer in Grand Rapids, and father of Grand Rapids Black History.
Today's Black History Fact is about Helen Jackson Claytor.
Born on April 12, 1908, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Helen Natalie Jackson was the third of four girls. Helen was just 12 years old when she joined the Y.W.C.A. Girl Reserves, remaining active throughout her childhood.
Helen was an exemplary student, as her high school valedictorian and then as a Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude graduate of the University of Minnesota in 1928. While at the university, she also became a member of one of the nation’s earliest chapters of the first Black sorority — Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Incorporated.
Helen began a professional life at the Y.W.C.A in Trenton, NJ. She soon married Earl Wilkins, a journalist, relocating her life to Kansas City, Missouri. They were married until his death in 1941 from tuberculosis. With the help of her mother, Helen went on working as a social worker at the then-segregated Kansas City Y.W.C.A. to support her young son, Roger.
The family soon moved to New York City, where Helen joined the newly established race relations office of the national Y.W.C.A. As secretary for Interracial Education, she co-authored a groundbreaking study of Interracial Practices in Community YWCAs, reinforcing her passion for social justice and equity.
Dedicated – She began to travel throughout the country and especially the South, in campaigns to desegregate local Y’s across the US. On one of her campaign trips, she stayed with the family of Dr. John B. Claytor in Roanoke, Virginia.
In 1942, the Y.W.C.A. of Grand Rapids, Michigan invited Helen to a meeting, gathering local community leaders in the city to meet her to discuss how to make changes here. She noticed a man with a strong resemblance to the Claytors she stayed with in Virginia – the man turned out to be Dr. John’s younger brother, Dr. Robert W. Claytor, the first Black doctor at Saint Mary’s and Butterworth hospitals and founder of the Grand Rapids Urban League. More on the legendary Dr. Robert Claytor tomorrow.
It was love at first sight and marked the beginning of a legendary Grand Rapids Black love story – The two married in 1943 and she moved to Grand Rapids a year later in 1944.
Helen continued her barrier-breaking work in race relations and community service. She ultimately returned to the National YWCA in 1946 as a member of the Board of Directors. She served two terms on the YWCA’s World Council of the YWCA representing the USA. In her capacity on the World Council, she attended meetings in China, Lebanon, Jamaica, Switzerland, Australia, and Ghana.
Helen brought about change in ways that affected the entire city. A true woman of the people here in Grand Rapids – she served in the Grand Rapids chapter of the Michigan Commission on Civil Rights and was instrumental in setting up the Michigan Fair Employment Practices Commission.
In 1954, She was appointed by the mayor to a committee for the City of Grand Rapids to study its racial problems. After months of hard work, She led the efforts to present the report: 1950s Grand Rapids Human Relations Study Commission to the mayor’s board.
The report’s harsh and real facts and statistics woke up city officials about the realities of life here and the first Human Relations Commission in Grand Rapids was formed. That commission evolved into the Office of Equal Opportunity, still an integral part of our city government today. In the early 1960s, she led a study on de facto segregation, making recommendations for integrating Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Claytor continued to break glass ceilings – In 1967, she became the first Black woman to be elected board President of the national YWCA. After much debate but ultimately adopted at the 1967 National Convention, Helen Claytor took a leading role in the drafting of the YWCA purpose; she regarded drafting the organization’s purpose as a major accomplishment of her lifelong career with the YWCA.
Under her leadership, all groups within the YWCA came together around one principle: “The elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.”
She served locally on many boards such as the Family Service Association, Planned Parenthood Association, the Grand Rapids Hospital Council, Hospice, and the Grand Rapids Historical Commission. On the state level, she served on the Michigan Youth Commission, and federally, on the National Women’s Advisory Committee to the Office of Economic Opportunity, the National Women’s Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, and the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
For her outstanding accomplishments in interracial understanding and community service, In 1968 she also received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota and an Honorary Doctor of Humanities from Eastern Michigan University in the same year. She later received an Honorary Doctor of Public Service from Western Michigan University in 1972.
In 1984, Ms. Claytor was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. In 2003, Coretta Scott King, speaking at a Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission dinner, saluted Helen, saying she was an "eloquent testament to the great things an individual can accomplish." Claytor died on May 10, 2005.
Today, you can find a statue in her honor at 19 Fountain St NE.
We extend immense gratitude to our ancestor Helen Claytor, a true social justice pioneer - her groundbreaking leadership and unwavering commitment as a true warrior for equity and civil rights lives on through her legacy here in Grand Rapids, we recognize her incredible contributions to the community as she’s a backbone of the progress we get to experience as Black people in our city today. We are truly blessed that love brought her this way.