Historic Detroit

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Thurman YWCA Branch

Segregation may not have been as prevalent in Detroit as it was in the South, but it was still sadly alive and well in the Motor City. There were restrictions on where Black Detroiters could live, work, and even play, such as recreation centers, where African Americans were not allowed inside the YWCA of their white counterparts. This made facilities like the Lucy Thurman YWCA and the St. Antoine YMCA (built in 1924 and demolished in 1964) vital pillars of the Black community.

The Detroit Urban League established a branch for female Black Detroiters in 1918 in a building at 2111 St. Aubin St., at Waterloo. The young women paid $2.75 and $3.75 a week. That didn't include meals, but the girls did have free reign to use the kitchen and fridge to prepare their own meals. The branch was named in honor of Lucy Simpson Thurman, a temperance lecturer "who renounced hard liquor with a passion that could transform boozers into teetotalers," the Detroit News wrote Feb. 27, 1998. She worked for racial equality and fought for women's rights as the national president of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and president of the National Committee for the Advancement of Colored Women. She also was the national superintendent of temperance work among Black Americans for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

"Mrs. F.R. Thurman, of Jackson, Michigan, is one of Michigan's most popular and talented Afro-American women and has enjoyed a wide experience as a lecturer and platform speaker, as organizer, and the president of the National W.C.T.U., and as president of the Michigan Federation of Colored Women's Clubs,” the 1915 Michigan Manual of Freedmen's Progress said. “She has traveled extensively throughout the United States in temperance and club work. She lives in a beautiful home at 206 Christy Avenue."

Thurman died in 1919 in her house at 206 Christy Ave. in Jackson, which still stands today. In 1992, she was posthumously awarded the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame Life Achievement Award.

By 1926, the Thurman branch had 800 members and needed a bigger, more modern home. Funds were raised the following year through the Women’s Building Campaign of 1927, which saw some 28,000 Detroiters chip in with contributions. This same campaign raised funds to build the Hutzel Women’s Hospital, Tau Beta Community House, Florence Crittenden Home, the Central Branch YWCA and the Highland Park YWCA. The Thurman YWCA was expected to cost between $450,000 and $500,000, the equivalent of about $10 million to $11 million in 2024 valuation, when adjusted for inflation.

A home of their own

Ground was broken on the northwest corner of East Elizabeth Street and St. Antoine for the new Thurman YWCA at 3 p.m. April 16, 1932. Mrs. C.S. Smith, chairwoman of the building committee, and Detroit YWCA President Louise Webber Jackson, wife of Hudson Motor Car Co. President Roscoe B. Jackson, turned the first spade. More than 200 people attended the brief ceremonies, including members of the Girl Reserves, which were led in song by Madeline H. Fowler, executive secretary of the Thurman branch.

“The Y.W.C.A. has come to be known as an organization which strives towards human betterment and social uplift,” the Rev. William H. Peck, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Church, said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “This day is significant because it is bringing opportunity to an even larger group than it served in the old Lucy Thurman building. For these young women, it means an alliance with a great movement.”

“The Lucy Thurman building will be the only extensive social center for clubs and organizations of Detroit negresses,” the Free Press shockingly wrote April 17, 1932. It also was the first building in Detroit to be devoted exclusively for the use of Black women.

The four-story brick building with stone trim - designed by the firm Malcomson, Higginbotham & Trout - featured a swimming pool on the first floor, gym and auditorium, clubrooms, a cafeteria, lounge, a second-floor chapel, game room and residence rooms for 72 young women.

"An unusual feature of the Lucy Thurman Branch Building is a housekeeping suite where the household arts will be taught," the Free Press wrote Jan. 1, 1933. "The up-to-date equipment is arranged to give the appearance of a modern apartment."

Thirty girls moved in right before Christmas 1932, and a family Christmas tree was set up in the sun room, with gifts for everyone in the house and "an old-fashioned breakfast party" for the holiday, the Detroit Free Press reported Dec. 25, 1932. Only the residential section of the building was open at this time.

The building formally opened the evening of Jan. 3, 1933, when the building was formally dedicated. Harriet Chamberlain of Toledo, the national president of the YWCA, gave the keynote address, and Webber Jackson presided over the ceremonies. Pre-dedication tours were given a day earlier, on Jan. 2.

“The building is modern, attractive and well-appointed,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the day of the dedication. “It is to be a center for educational classes, sports and group activities of many sorts; and it is peculiarly interesting to find that in large part the building has been made possible by the efforts of those who will occupy it.”

"I can recall when Black women stood on corners to collect money to build (the Thurman branch) because they were not allowed in the building around the corner," Bernadine Denning, the 1979 chairwoman of the organization's national convention, told the Detroit Free Press for a June 18, 1993, story.

During the Great Migration, the Thurman Branch was home to a number of Black women who fled the Jim Crow South to find work and opportunity in Detroit. It was also a social club for the Black middle class.

“It was an exciting place to live, especially for young people,” Bessie McCaskill told the Free Press for an April 13, 1998, column about the Y. “There was a group of us who had moved to Detroit from out of town, and we developed a great camaraderie. … During that time, there were not many places where Blacks could go. As a result, many of the prominent Black businesspeople and politicians could be seen dining at the Y every day.”

Lawrence Carter, in a column in the April 10, 1986, edition of The Detroit News headlined "YWCA was cultural force for Blacks," wrote that the Thurman Y was home to "the focus of Black political and cultural forces in the city."

The Detroit News wrote May 14, 1972, that "the Lucy Thurman branch of the Young Women's Christian Association was a center of social life for young Black girls and its cafeteria a lunchtime gathering place for hundreds of Black business and professional people."

The YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit noted that it was a center for civil rights discussion, sponsoring speakers and offering classes. Its dining hall “was the only place in Detroit where Blacks and whites could meet and dine together in dignity,” because though Black women were not allowed in the white YWCA, the same rules didn’t apply the other way around.

In October 1941, the Detroit NAACP held a statewide conference for Black defense workers from across the state at the Thurman Y and Ebenezer AME Baptist Church that was attended by more than 1,000 people. A month later, the Negro Committee of the UAW-CIO was held at the Thurman branch to discuss discrimination at Detroit's defense plants.

Desegregation and detoxing

In November 1946, the YWCA adopted an interracial charter, and Black girls were encouraged for the first time to go to the YWCA closest to their home. Nevertheless, the Thurman branch remained a center of Black life in Detroit until 1963, when it was sold "in the name of desegregation," with the two women’s clubs being integrated into the previously white-only YWCA on Witherell.

On June 29, 1963, the YWCA Board of Directors voted to merge the two branches.

"Lack of sufficient funds to maintain two branches within six blocks of each other makes it imperative that we consolidate our downtown activities under one roof," Mrs. Bernard L. Hundley, the YWCA's president, told the Detroit Tribune for a story that day. "With consolidation of activities, we will also be able to serve more effectively the thousands of women and girls who work downtown and the children and youth who live in the inner city.” Hundley also noted that the YWCA's Interracial Charter adopted 16 years earlier, and “its racially integrated program do not make necessary further operation of the predominately all-Negro Lucy Thurman Branch."

Those living at Thurman were given the opportunity to move into the location on Witherell or Northern branch.

“When the Lucy Thurman closed its doors in 1963, a lot of us felt a tremendous sense of loss,” Maxine Martin told the Detroit Free Press for an April 13, 1998, column. “I would have preferred to see the Lucy Thurman stay in business and remain a Black facility.”

On Nov. 2, 1963, the Guardian Angel Home for Girls announced it had bought the Thurman YWCA in a deal that included all the furnishings and equipment in the four-story building. The Felician Sisters of Detroit took possession immediately and expected to move out of the Felician Academy at Canfield and St. Aubin and into their new home by the end of the year. Renamed Angelus Hall, by March 1966, the old Y was home to 50 teenage girls, most of whom were wards of the court and had lost their real homes through death or rough circumstances for their parents.

"We want to give them the care of a mother since so many don't have a mother to care," Sister Mary Angelica, director of Angelus Hall, told the Detroit News for a March 11, 1966, article. "The main purpose for Angelus Hall is to provide an environment in which a girl can make an adjustment to a real life situation."

The girls had a tennis court, barbecue pit and a screened-in backyard. The pool was renovated. They even had a color TV, ping pong table and a record player, as well as lessons in sewing and piano. Most of the girls stayed an average of a year or two. After high school, Angelus Hall sisters helped the girls find a job and living quarters.

In November 1972, Father Vaughan Quinn moved his Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center, a long-term treatment facility for those seeking help with alcohol addiction, into the former Thurman branch. The Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center began in June 1967 in the former Sacred Heart School, at 1005 Eliot, and became a nationally known leader in rehab - or, as The Detroit News called it Dec. 24, 1972, "a spectacularly successful drunk tank." The Canadian Catholic priest, a recovering alcoholic himself, formed the rehab center “with Boxcar Benny and Foul Mouth Seymour and Paratrooper Jack and One Arm Archie,” he told the Arnprior Chronicle-Guide for a Sept. 8, 2011, story. He became the center's first director, and adopted a regimen based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Quinn was born in Montreal in 1933, and remained a Canadian citizen while being a permanent U.S resident during his time running the center in Detroit. He entered the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate in Montreal in 1956, and received clinical training in the Area of Alcoholism from the University of Edmonton and clinical training in psychiatry from the University of Saskatchewan. Quinn took up the charge of helping others battle alcoholism while undergoing treatment himself at the Guest House Treatment Center for Religious Priests and Brothers from 1965 to 1966.

He was also "an outspoken, populist priest with a bizarre bent toward racing around town in a real (1917) fire engine," Free Press columnist Bob Talbert wrote in a Nov. 1, 1991, column. The Arnprior Chronicle-Guide wrote that he “roamed the streets picking up drunks, bottomed out people, people who had been engineers, musicians, people at the top of their profession before becoming drunks.”

“I soon realized telling them God Bless you isn’t going to feed these guys, so I went to the city and said, ‘I am cleaning up your streets, give $300 for each body,’ and for 25 years, I ran it like Hitler, but without Hitler’s warmth,” Quinn, rather oddly, told the Chronicle-Guide.

He also played hockey on the Flying Fathers - which the Chicago Tribune once called hockey's answer to basketball's Harlem Globetrotters - for 28 years, raising millions for charities.

Quinn retired in January 1987, citing emotional and physical exhaustion after two decades on the job, and became chaplain at the Collins Bay Institution, a medium security prison in Kingston, Ontario. He was accused in the fall of 1987 of sexually assaulting a woman undergoing treatment at Sacred Heart a year earlier, and settled the suit in 1990 without admitting liability or responsibility. In 2011, he was a member of the Little Brothers of Good Shepherds, working to keep Toronto residents off crack.

RIP, YWCA

In 1998, it was announced that the Thurman branch - then one of a number of abandoned buildings downtown - would be demolished as part of the clearing of a wide swath of downtown for Comerica Park and Ford Field.

"When my mother moved to Detroit from East St. Louis, Ill., in 1942, she needed a clean safe place to live," Cliff Russell wrote in a column in the April 13, 1998, edition of the Free Press in which he eulogized the Thurman Y. "And like hundreds of other young, Black women, she found suitable accommodations and much more at the Lucy Thurman YWCA. ... Decent housing for Blacks was at a premium, and the Lucy Thurman Y … was so comfortable and convenient that my mom lived there for eight years. …

“A part of me is sad to see the Lucy Thurman Y go,” Russell said. “In our quest to create the new, why must we so often obliterate the old? With the physical structure gone, who will carry on the history of the Lucy Thurman Y?”

The YWCA, then operating out of the former University Club, said it planned to name a room after Thurman to keep that memory alive. The YWCA moved out of the University Club in 2008, and the abandoned building was torn down in 2013 after suffering a major fire.

The site of this pillar of Detroit's Black community now lies under Ford Field.